Virginia Democrats Aim to Block Trump’s E.P.A. Chief From State Agency
In Virginia, cabinet nominees are rarely blocked. But the Republican governor-elect’s choice of Andrew Wheeler to be natural resources secretary has alarmed Democrats.
WASHINGTON — A rare confirmation battle is brewing around the nomination of Andrew Wheeler, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald J. Trump, to take a similar role in an incoming Republican state administration in Virginia.
Democratic leaders said they would try to block Mr. Wheeler from taking charge of conservation programs, environmental cleanups and climate change initiatives like the ones he opposed as E.P.A. administrator.
Resistance to Mr. Wheeler began building just moments after his nomination to be natural resources secretary was announced on Wednesday by Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who will be sworn in on Jan. 15.
Republicans won control of the House of Delegates in November, but Democrats retain a 21-to-19 majority in the State Senate. They would be able to block confirmation of Mr. Wheeler if every Senate Democrat were to vote against him.
It would be one of just a handful of times in recent history that a governor’s pick had been upended in a state where polite politics have long been the norm.
Democratic lawmakers on Thursday said Mr. Wheeler’s former employment as a coal lobbyist and the role he played at the E.P.A. reversing federal protections against air and water pollution were reasons to fight his appointment.
“Our governors tend not to propose people for these positions that are all that polarizing,” said Scott A. Surovell, a Democratic state senator from Northern Virginia. “I can’t think of a nominee in the last 20 years that has had the level of a controversial history as this guy does.”
Mr. Surovell, who is vice chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus, said he was unsure if there were enough votes to defeat Mr. Wheeler’s nomination. But he said he had been fielding text messages all day from colleagues who expressed astonishment at Mr. Youngkin’s choice.
“I think there’s a real chance that he could be rejected if Governor-elect Youngkin continues to insist on his nomination,” Mr. Surovell said.
Mr. Wheeler, who lives in Virginia, did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesman for Mr. Youngkin also declined to comment.
In a statement announcing his nomination of Mr. Wheeler as well as Michael Rolband to be state director of environmental quality, Mr. Youngkin said “Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels. Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable, and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer.”
As E.P.A. administrator in the Trump administration, Mr. Wheeler acknowledged the science of climate change but also said he believed it was not “the greatest crisis” facing the planet. He repealed several regulations that had been implemented by President Barack Obama and were designed to cut emissions from automobiles, power plants and oil and gas wells. Mr. Biden has revived many of those rules and is in the process of reinstating others.
Mr. Wheeler also worked to make it harder for the E.P.A. to impose new regulations, most notably by trying to limit the kind of scientific studies the agency could consider when writing new pollution restrictions. A federal judge threw out that limit in February.
Before joining the E.P.A., Mr. Wheeler worked for Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has called climate change a “hoax.” He later worked as an energy lobbyist. His biggest client was Robert Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, who fought Mr. Obama’s climate and clean air regulations. Mr. Murray, who was a major donor to Mr. Trump, died in October. Representing Mr. Murray’s coal interests brought Mr. Wheeler’s lobbying firm more than $2.7 million over eight years.
In September Mr. Wheeler testified before the board of supervisors in Fairfax County, Va., against a proposed 5-cent tax on disposable plastic bags, calling the plan “misguided.”
“The appointment of someone like Wheeler is dangerous and reckless,” said Connor Kish, the legislative and political director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. Mr. Kish said the chapter was launching a direct lobbying effort to squelch Mr. Wheeler’s confirmation, the first time in his memory the group has done so for a state-level nominee.
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Yet despite opposition to his policies, Mr. Wheeler also briefly was a salve at a time of great angst at the E.P.A. when he took its helm in 2018 after his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, resigned amid federal ethics inquiries. Having started his career at the E.P.A. in the 1990s before working in the Senate for more than a decade, Mr. Wheeler was considered a technocrat who did not seek the limelight and focused on advancing his bosses’ agendas.
“He’s going to be a very, very steady hand,” said Michael Catanzaro, an energy lobbyist and partner with the consulting firm CGCN Group who served in the Trump administration.
“Is he going to implement policies the governor wants? Yeah,” Mr. Catanzaro said. “The environmental community is not going to like that, but they should at least have some respect for Andy and his decades of experience in working on energy and environmental issues.”
Mr. Youngkin already has said he wants to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon market involving 10 other Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States. Virginia recently completed its first full cycle of quarterly carbon auctions, which yielded about $228 million in revenue that Virginia designated for flood protection and clean energy programs in low-income areas.
Legal experts said it was unclear whether Mr. Youngkin could unilaterally withdraw Virginia from the initiative because its participation was authorized by state law.
The legislature also passed the 2020 Clean Economy Act, which committed Virginia to transitioning the electric grid to 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050. Democratic lawmakers said they feared Mr. Wheeler would try to slow down or weaken implementation.
“I am very concerned that he will not only stall but actively undermine the bill,” said State Senator Jennifer McClellan, Democrat of Charles City County and an architect of the Clean Economy Act. She said the law had led to Virginia being ranked 5th nationally in the growth of solar power.
Ms. McClellan declined to say if she would vote against Mr. Wheeler, but said she had concerns “I’m not sure he can overcome.”
The last time the Virginia General Assembly rejected a nomination was in 2006, when Republicans opposed Governor Tim Kaine’s nomination of Daniel LeBlanc to be secretary of the commonwealth, said Cale Jaffe, director of the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.
“It’s rare historically that the General Assembly objects to a governor’s cabinet picks, but it’s not unprecedented,” he said.