Senate confirms former coal lobbyist to be EPA's number two

(Bloomberg) — A former lobbyist for one of the largest U.S. coal mining companies won confirmation to be the Environmental Protection Agency’s No. 2 official, putting him in position to take over the agency, at least temporarily, if embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt were to leave.

Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican Senate staffer whose client list at lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP included coal company Murray Energy Corp., uranium explorer Energy Fuel Resources Inc., and utility giant Xcel Energy Inc., was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday to be EPA’s deputy administrator by a vote of 53 to 45.

Most Democrats were opposed to the nomination, which was already facing resistance from congressional critics who said Wheeler worked to roll back EPA regulations while serving his clients. They redoubled their efforts to block him given the possibility that Pruitt could resign or be fired in light of recent reports of lavish spending and a questionable condo rental arrangement with a lobbyist.

"He’s never been vetted to be the top job so we’ve got a real problem there," said Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the appropriations panel that oversees the EPA’s budget. "We could see Scott Pruitt leave in a matter of days."

Wheeler, a former staff member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and aide to Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, worked at the EPA under both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

That track record garnered praise from lawmakers such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine.

“There’s a huge difference” between the two, Collins said in an interview this week. “While I undoubtedly will disagree with him on some issues he did not, unlike Mr. Pruitt, sue the EPA 14 times.” Collins was the only Republican senator to vote against Pruitt’s confirmation in 2017.

Wheeler’s confirmation comes as Pruitt’s troubles seem to accumulating by the day. He’s been under fire for renting a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist, using an obscure law to grant large raises to two close advisers over White House objections, and showing a pattern of retaliating against employees who didn’t go along with the moves.

Trump has tweeted support for the cabinet secretary, though, even as the White House has said it’s reviewing his condo deal.

In a statement following Wheeler’s nomination, Pruitt said the nominee would “bring extraordinary credentials to EPA that will greatly assist the agency as we work to implement our agenda.”

(Written by Ari Natter)