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Senate confirms Fairfield native Andrew Wheeler to lead EPA

Posted at 4:18 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 16:18:13-05

(CNN) -- The Senate Thursday confirmed a Fairfield, Ohio, native to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, won approval in a 52-47 vote primarily along party lines. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted for Wheeler while Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, opposed the nomination.

Wheeler, who graduated from Fairfield High School in 1983, has been acting administrator since July, when former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid a host of ethics controversies.

Since Wheeler began leading the agency, he has continued work on many of the same priorities as his predecessor, including looking to roll back Obama-era air and water pollution regulations.

But Wheeler has brought a level of stability to the agency that didn't exist under Pruitt, keeping a relatively low profile while continuing to make progress towards meeting the Trump administration's policy goals for the agency.

He has met often with industry representatives. Wheeler attended or held more than 50 meetings with representatives of companies or industry groups regulated by the EPA between April and August of 2018, a CNN review of his internal schedules found.

Before Wheeler's confirmation last year as second in command at the EPA, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wheeler's qualifications for the job were "beyond question."

"Mr. Wheeler's former boss, our colleague Senator (James) Inhofe, says, quote, 'there is no one more qualified.' Our former colleague Senator (Joe) Lieberman has called Mr. Wheeler 'fair and professional,'" McConnell said.

Wheeler has support among most Republicans, but GOP Sen. Susan Collins voted "no" on Thursday. In a statement this week, Collins said she believes Wheeler, "unlike Scott Pruitt, understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards; however, the policies he has supported as acting administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health."

She cited Wheeler's policies to roll back environmental protections, including determining that it was no longer necessary to regulate mercury emissions from power plants as an issue for her home state of Maine, which is "on the receiving end of pollution generated by coal-fired power plants in other states."

While Wheeler doesn't outright deny climate change, he has also downplayed its urgency during his time in the Trump administration. At Wheeler's confirmation hearing last month, he said he considers climate change an "eight or nine" on a 1-to-10 scale of concern but that it is not the greatest crisis.

"I would not call it the greatest crisis," he said. "I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally."

He also said during his hearing that he was still reviewing the major climate change reporthis agency and others released nearly two months ago.

"I don't disagree with the findings," he told senators. "I'm still examining the findings. I'm trying to understand what was in it and what was covered by the assessment."

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