Va. Senate committee rejects former EPA chief for Cabinet
But Youngkin's natural resources secretary pick may still survive battle
The Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 9-6 Tuesday against confirming former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s appointment for state secretary of natural and historic resources. The vote does not eliminate Wheeler’s chances of confirmation.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement, “Andrew Wheeler is a highly qualified individual with an extensive background on natural resources and issues critically important to Virginians. The governor is disappointed that the committee put partisan politics over the selection of an experienced public servant who would prioritize cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and James River.”
The committee vote removed Wheeler from the resolution (SJ 84) to confirm Youngkin’s Cabinet appointments.
“The economy of the future requires a transition to wind, solar and other renewable energy jobs and technologies that will be a part of the commonwealth’s prosperity for decades to come,” Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a statement. “Virginia must continue its future-forward economic agenda. Gov. Youngkin’s nominee is a step in the wrong direction.”
When the legislation reaches the full Senate, a floor amendment could put him back on the list. The amendment would need only one Democrat to cross party lines, as Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears is the tiebreaker vote.
After a hearing last week, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, told The Washington Post he was “very much open to approving [Wheeler’s] nomination.”
Wheeler served in the Trump administration as the 15th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 to 2021. He started at the EPA as a special assistant in its Pollution Prevention and Toxics office during the George H.W. Bush administration and became the agency’s deputy administrator in 2018. Wheeler’s EPA tenure was marked with some controversy, including an attempt to prohibit the EPA from utilizing research studies without publicly available raw data. The proposal was opposed by 69 leading scientific and medical organizations, editors of major scientific journals and a bipartisan group of former EPA administrators. Under his administration, the EPA also diminished mercury cleanup regulations and decided against increasing standards for fine soot pollution.
The Virginia Senate has received two warring letters from former EPA employees.
On Jan. 14, The Associated Press reported, 158 former EPA employees wrote urging legislators to oppose Wheeler’s nomination: “As EPA Administrator, Mr. Wheeler pursued an extremist approach, methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment, instead favoring polluters. Mr. Wheeler also sidelined science at the agency, ignored both agency and outside experts, rolled back rules to cut greenhouse gases and protect the climate and took steps to hamstring EPA and slow efforts to set the agency back on course after he left office,” the letter stated.
Over the weekend, 125 former EPA employees and others who had worked directly with Wheeler wrote to the Virginia Senate urging legislators to approve him, The AP also reported. The letter called Wheeler a “strong supporter of Clean Air Act” programs, like the first greenhouse gas emissions standards for aircraft, finalized in 2020. Additionally, Wheeler worked to improve the national recycling rate, the letter said. “All told, over the course of Mr. Wheeler’s career, he has improved the lives of millions of Americans through his steadfast commitments to a better, healthier environment,” the letter states. “He has worked collaboratively across the aisle and with the diverse range of environmental stakeholders to create these positive outcomes.”
Virginia League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Michael Town put out a statement in favor of the committee’s action to reject Wheeler, saying, “Andrew Wheeler is unfit to lead Virginia’s environmental agencies. Today, senators in the Privileges and Elections Committee made the right call by removing him from consideration. We hope the Youngkin administration can find a replacement secretary who actually has a demonstrable record of caring about environmental protection.”