Former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler defended his record Tuesday as he made an initial public appearance before Virginia lawmakers, who will ultimately vote on whether to confirm his appointment to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s cabinet.
Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and US Senate staffer who led the EPA during the last years of the Trump administration, told a state Senate committee that he had not applied for the position of secretary of natural resources. and historic Virginia. Rather, he said, Youngkin offered it to him after he participated in a team advising Youngkin’s transition and briefed him on the challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay.
“The Governor believes that with my unique experience leading EPA and serving in a senior leadership position in the US Senate, I know how to access federal funding and assistance to make a difference for the state,” Wheeler told the committee.
Earlier this month, Youngkin announced Wheeler’s selection for work involving oversight of environmental policy as well as wildlife and historic resources. The news sparked an immediate backlash from the state’s leading conservation groups, who characterized his EPA leadership as too deferential to corporate interests and accused him of downplaying climate change threats.
The appointment of cabinet secretaries is subject to legislative approval, and several members of the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate have voiced opposition to Wheeler’s nomination. Republicans control the state House.
Wheeler, who has been meeting privately with some lawmakers, made comments and cordially answered questions from the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources for about an hour. Wheeler provided detailed answers to questions, joking at one point that he was facing a lot of accusations and welcomed the opportunity to address them all.
He told members that if he remained in office, he would prioritize Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, bring “more certainty and transparency” to enable and implement a coastal resiliency plan to help the state plan for and combat rising sea level.
“I have a long career trying to bridge the gap on these issues and protect the resources we all share,” he said.
When asked specifically if he believed in climate change, Wheeler answered yes, saying that the EPA did not have much room to work on the issue during his term due to lack of action by Congress.
One committee member, Democrat of the Center Joe Morrissey, said he was satisfied with the answers Wheeler provided on Tuesday. He asked Wheeler why he thought he had been a “lightning rod” for the controversy.
“First of all, I don’t think the press covered the things I did at the EPA very well,” Wheeler responded.
He cited a specific example of what he described as a lack of media interest at a news conference highlighting a grant program to help fund cleaner school buses.
“Our positives were never covered,” said Wheeler, who at several other points complained about what he said was unfair media coverage of his career.
Among those opposing Wheeler’s nomination is a group of more than 150 former EPA employees, including former high-ranking officials, who wrote to lawmakers earlier this month raising their concerns. In a letter, they said that Wheeler had methodically weakened “EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment.”
A union representing some 7,500 EPA workers has also asked lawmakers to reject his nomination.
The committee did not receive public comment related to his appointment or vote. The visit was a formality and an opportunity to ask questions. Other Youngkin cabinet secretaries have recently been appearing in front of committees handling legislation relevant to their issues of responsibility.
Cabinet secretaries will receive votes confirming their appointments later in the session. No other appointee has drawn public opposition like Wheeler, who was due to appear before a House committee on Wednesday.