Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist chosen by President Donald Trump to serve as the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator, downplayed the threat of climate change at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
He refused to call the rapid warming of the planet a crisis. He repeatedly misrepresented his own agency’s findings about a rule to gut an Obama-era power plant regulation, inflating the emissions cuts the new proposal would mandate. He even mixed up two of the most important climate science reports to come out in the last three months, admitting he hadn’t fully read the report co-authored by researchers at his own agency.
“I believe climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally,” Wheeler said. “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir.”
It was a brazen if not unexpected stance from the nominee to become the EPA’s 15th administrator. Wheeler isn’t new to the job: Last month, he became the longest-serving acting chief in the agency’s history, having taken over in July when former Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting scandals.
In November 2017, when he appeared before the Senate environment and public works committee to interview for the EPA’s No. 2 job, Wheeler said he believed “that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is.”
That remark broke with the scientific consensus, almost universally accepted, that emissions from burning fossil fuels are the primary cause of the 1-degree Celsius temperature rise the planet has experienced since the pre-industrial era.
Since then, the realities of climate change have only become more tangible for millions of Americans, as record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires have killed thousands and caused unprecedented damage.
In October, the United Nations released a landmark determination that the world has until 2030 to halve global emissions or face catastrophic climate change. A month later, the federal government’s National Climate Assessment ― a congressionally mandated report issued by 13 agencies, including the EPA ― confirmed the findings and warned of cataclysmic damage to the United States economy and human health and “by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century.”
In November, Wheeler admitted he hadn’t read the report, but still dismissed its findings and threatened to intervene in the drafting of the next National Climate Assessment.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Wheeler initially mistook the United Nations report for the National Climate Assessment. Asked about the latter, he said he “did not review the report before it came out,” and that he held just one briefing meeting with his career staffers. He said the partial federal government shutdown, now its fourth week, forced him to delay future briefings.
“They gave me a number of background info to read and we scheduled additional briefings on it for early January, but those have been postponed,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler dismissed the report this month that found U.S. emissions rose 3.4 percent last year, blaming the jump on a manufacturing and industrial surge triggered by the Trump administration’s deregulatory effort. But he claimed his proposals to dramatically weaken emissions rules for vehicles and power plants ― the largest and second largest sources of climate pollution, respectively ― would provide reductions in line with the Obama-era regulations they aim to replace.
When pressed about the need to cut emissions, Wheeler returned to a certain statistic over and over again, stating that the Affordable Clean Energy rule he proposed in August would deliver carbon dioxide reductions 34 percent below 2005 levels, compared to the 33 to 35 percent the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan would have provided.
This is a fudged statistic, however. The EPA’s own analysis shows the so-called ACE rule would actually increase CO2 emissions by 20 to 61 million tons, nitrous oxide by 14,000 to 43,000 tons and sulfur dioxide by 29,000 to 53,000 tons. Those increases are expected to cause up to 1,400 premature deaths per year by 2030.
Wheeler’s climate denial received some backup at Wednesday’s hearing. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who once infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “debunk” climate change, submitted rebuttals to climate science reports from right-wing think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, both of which are funded by the fossil-fuel billionaire Koch brothers.
“There’s a lot of media spin,” Inhofe said, dismissing the latest report showing an uptick in U.S. emissions.
Only a portion of the nearly three-hour hearing focused on global warming. Asked about a rule to scale back the amount of toxic mercury coal plants can emit, Wheeler said he doesn’t believe his proposal will prompt existing power stations to remove equipment.
Wheeler faced multiple questions about the shutdown, and why the Trump administration saw fit to nominate new chiefs for the EPA and Department of Justice amid the longest closure in the federal government’s history.
Wheeler blamed the shutdown for the delay in releasing a plan to deal with toxic perfluorinated substances in drinking water. Over the past few years, the chemicals, known as PFAS and linked to cancer and thyroid disease, have been found in water sources across the country. Wheeler, however, declined to commit to a two-year deadline for setting a drinking water standard for PFAS.
Republican senators praised Wheeler’s proposal to replace another Obama-era rule that sought to safeguard drinking water for millions of Americans by extending federal protections to 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) even prompted Wheeler with a question about his nearly two decades working for Bob Murray, the influential and bombastic baron who runs the nation’s largest privately owned coal company. Wheeler used his response to note that the last four years of his time working for Murray were spent advocating for miners’ pensions.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) brought out some visual aids to question Wheeler further about his relationship with Murray ― including a poster-sized printout of a photo leaked from a March 2017 meeting between Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, where the coal executive provided a detailed wish list of policies to the administration. That meeting ended, as another photo showed, with a hug between Perry and Murray. Wheeler is seen sitting beside Murray in the picture.
“It was a nice, cozy meeting ― let’s show the bear hug photo,” Whitehouse said. “That’s a sweet regulatory relationship.”
“For the record,” Wheeler said, “that’s not me, though.”
“No, that’s your client, Mr. Murray,” Whitehouse said.
Soon after, as Wheeler began to defend his past efforts to organize meetings between industry executives and Trump administration officials, time expired, and the question went to the next Republican senator.