Senate environment panel okays Trump's pick to lead EPA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key Senate committee approved U.S. President Donald Trump’s new pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, putting the former coal lobbyist a step closer to becoming the permanent head of America’s top environmental regulator.

FILE PHOTO: Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler speaks during an event hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump with workers on "Cutting the Red Tape, Unleashing Economic Freedom" in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Washington insider with years of experience in Congress, was nominated by Trump last month to replace Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July after widespread criticism for alleged ethical missteps.

His nomination has cheered business interests keen to see reduced regulation, but upset Democrats and conservation groups worried that environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration are going too far.

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted in favor of advancing Wheeler’s nomination. A full Senate vote must now be scheduled to complete his confirmation.

“Mr. Wheeler has done an outstanding job as the acting administrator over the past six months,” Republican Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the committee said.

Shelley Moore Capito, Republican Senator from West Virginia said Wheeler worked to improve transparency at the agency.

Wheeler was not present at the meeting.

While running EPA on an interim basis, Wheeler continued his predecessor’s efforts to strip away red tape on industry, including by weakening Obama-era rules limiting carbon and mercury emissions from power plants, and advancing an initiative to lift a summertime ban on higher ethanol blends of gasoline that was enacted to curb smog.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Wheeler also said he did not believe climate change was not a major crisis - a stance that resonates with Trump’s skepticism but which clashes with the scientific consensus that global warming will have devastating consequences if not addressed urgently.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on climate change science, including from scientists within his own government, and has indicated his intention to withdraw from a global pact to fight it because he says would be too costly for U.S. companies.

Wheeler - like Pruitt - held nearly 20 times more meetings with industry representatives than with conservationists during his first two months on the job, according to a copy of his schedule reviewed by Reuters.

“In many instances, Mr. Wheeler has gone further than his predecessor in his rejection of important measures that are supported by a broad list of environmentalists and industry,” Democrat Senator Tom Carper, ranking member of the committee said in his opening remarks.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio