WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed President Donald Trump's candidate, a former coal lobbyist, to lead the nation's top environmental regulator, infuriating Democrats and conservation groups who said his policies were endangering public health.
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Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Washington insider with years of experience working as a congressional staffer, was nominated by Trump in January to permanently replace Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July after widespread criticism for alleged ethical missteps.
"As acting administrator of EPA, (Wheeler) has prioritized commonsense policies that protect our air and water, while allowing our economy to grow," said Senate Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming following the 52-47 vote.
Only one Republican in the Republican-controlled Senate opposed Wheeler, Maine's Susan Collins, who argued his efforts to roll back standards on emissions blamed for climate change takes the country in the wrong direction.
Business interests like oil and coal, eager to see reduced regulation, were quick to hail Wheeler's confirmation while Democrats and conservation groups are worried that environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration are going too far.
"Throughout his career, Andrew Wheeler has shown a clear disregard for the EPA’s mission to protect the public and environment," said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, after voting against him.
While running the EPA on an interim basis, Wheeler oversaw the weakening of Obama-era rules limiting carbon and mercury emissions from power plants and standards on carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. He has also advanced an initiative to lift a summertime ban on higher ethanol blends of gasoline that was enacted to curb smog.
"Andrew Wheeler has been instrumental in advancing the most regressive environmental proposals of the Trump Administration —weakening public health protections against dirty cars, heat-trapping methane, toxic mercury, pollution from coal plants, and so much more," Moms Clean Air Force, a civil society group combating air pollution.
During his confirmation hearing in January, Wheeler said he did not believe climate change was 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.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler 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.
Prior to the vote, Wheeler had also faced a brief pushback from five Republican senators from oil states - including Ted Cruz of Texas - over what they perceived as his support of policies favorable to the ethanol industry.
The corn and oil industries have conflicting interests when it comes to biofuels like ethanol, which compete with petroleum for market share.
All five senators had met with Wheeler earlier in February over the issue and voted to approve Wheeler on Thursday.
Michelle Bloodworth, president of America's Power (ACCCE), a coal industry lobby group said Wheeler was a "thoughtful leader who understands the need for sensible environmental policies."
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Peter Cooney and Marguerita Choy)