January 16, 2019 / 12:02 PM / 6 months ago

Democrats to grill Trump's new EPA chief pick over past lobbying

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers will grill U.S. President Donald Trump's new pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday over his past coal lobbying, but have little hope of blocking his confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Trump nominated EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to run the agency permanently last week, a pick that could provide him another avid supporter of his deregulatory and pro-fossil fuels agenda without the constant criticism over alleged mismanagement that plagued Wheeler’s predecessor Scott Pruitt.

A Washington insider with years experience as a top aide to Republican Senator and climate skeptic Jim Inhofe, Wheeler has been running the EPA since July, when Pruitt resigned in a flurry of criticism over his expensive travel and use of resources and staff for personal matters.

Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee running Wednesday's confirmation hearing said they would press Wheeler on his past lobbying, which includes work for underground coal giant Murray Energy - a vocal proponent for reduced environmental and safety regulation.

They are also likely to needle Wheeler about his record so far at EPA, which has largely been a follow through on Pruitt's moves to undo or weaken Obama-era environmental regulations - including on power plant pollutant emissions.

"I urged him to restore public trust in the agency by heeding lessons of the past and by remedying some of Scott Pruitt’s most egregious actions and proposals. He has not done so," said Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee.

Industry representatives and Republican lawmakers, however, have largely praised Wheeler for his deregulatory stance, arguing the EPA has for years imposed overly-burdensome requirements on businesses that have hurt growth.

"He understands how the regulatory process works and the type of effort that is required to develop effective and legally defensible regulatory reforms,” said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at industry law firm Bracewell and former EPA Air Administrator.

Environmental groups, including Moms Clean Air Force - an organization that advocates for children's environmental health - plan to attend Wednesday’s hearing in protest.

Dominique Browning, a member of the group, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday that Wheeler “should not be entrusted with protecting us from harm” and that his recent move to weaken mercury limits by downplaying their benefits was harmful. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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