January 16, 2019 / 3:57 PM / a year ago

REFILE-UPDATE 3-Trump's new EPA pick defends rollbacks as Democrats call him 'extreme'

(Adds dropped word "limits" in paragraph 10)

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday slammed U.S. President Donald Trump's new pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency as a pro-business extremist, but harbored 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.

If confirmed, Wheeler would continue to push the Trump administration's deregulatory and pro-fossil fuels agenda but without the constant criticism over alleged mismanagement that plagued his predecessor Scott Pruitt.

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

His nomination has pleased business groups, but angered environmental advocates, some of whom protested the hearing.

"Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethically-bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be," Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said at the hearing.

Carper, however, added: "Mr Wheeler’s environmental policies appear to be just as extreme as his predecessor’s."

Wheeler defended his record so far at EPA, largely defined by moves to undo or weaken Obama-era environmental regulations, casting it as a way to reduce the regulatory burden on business while also protecting air and water quality for Americans.

Among his accomplishments at the EPA, Wheeler last year finalized a proposal to replace Obama-era federal curbs on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants with a new rule placing much of that power in the hands of states.

He has also overseen the EPA's gutting of the justification for Obama-era mercury emissions limits, a proposal to reduce the number of waterways under federal protection, and efforts to lower targets for vehicle fuel efficiency.

Democrats pressed Wheeler on his record and also his past work lobbying on behalf of energy companies like underground coal giant Murray Energy, a vocal proponent of reduced environmental and safety regulation.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, held up photos of Wheeler attending meetings between Murray's Chief Executive Robert Murray and Trump administration officials, and asked Wheeler for a full accounting of the number of such meetings he had arranged for the coal company.

Wheeler said he would provide a written response.

CLIMATE CRISIS?

Democratic senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ed Markey of Massachusetts also attacked Wheeler for refusing to call climate change the world's most pressing crisis, despite mounting evidence it is leading to potentially devastating sea level rise, flooding, wildfires and and extreme weather.

"You are putting up a smokescreen to ensure there is an advancement of Donald Trump’s dirty policies," Markey said. "That’s why it is relevant that you are a former coal industry lobbyist," he added.

A federal report written by 13 government agencies late last year said climate change, driven by fossil fuels consumption, will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century, damaging everything from human health to infrastructure and agricultural production.

Wheeler said he had been briefed on the assessment, but had several outstanding questions about it and was waiting for further briefings from his staff.

"I would not call it the greatest crisis," Wheeler said.

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

"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-focused law firm Bracewell and a former EPA air administrator.

Environmental groups, including Moms Clean Air Force - an organization that advocates for children's environmental health - attended Wednesday’s hearing wearing red T-shirts and chanting "Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA." (Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk Editing by Marguerita Choy and Paul Simao)

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