The U.S. Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler Thursday as permanent administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even as notable centrists opposed him, a sign he could face pressure to soften his regulatory rollback agenda.
Still, Wheeler -- who had been serving as acting administrator -- was confirmed 52 to 47, with only the votes of Republicans.
Wheeler, 54, a former energy lobbyist and Senate Republican staffer, has faithfully implemented President Trump’s deregulatory agenda since replacing former administrator Scott Pruitt in July.
He was previously approved by the Senate last year to be the second-highest-ranking EPA official under Pruitt, who resigned last year amid a series of ethics allegations.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, was among the "yes" votes for Wheeler.
“In my conversations with Andrew Wheeler prior to today’s confirmation vote, we discussed how the EPA will tackle many environmental priorities specific to Colorado,” Gardner said in a statement. “Under his leadership, the EPA has sped up the completion date of the Colorado Smelter Superfund site by prioritizing its funding, renewed their commitment to prioritize the remediation of Bonita Peak Superfund site, and initiated the first step in confronting the PFAS contamination issue affecting communities around Peterson Air Force Base. Andrew is also supportive of Good Samaritan legislation that I have been working on to allow qualified volunteers to clean up orphaned hard rock mines."
Gardner said he would "continue to work with the EPA to make sure they fulfill their commitments.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that Wheeler has "proven his ability to advance pragmatic solutions to pressing environmental challenges."
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a centrist, was the only Republican to oppose Wheeler, citing his inattention to addressing climate change while serving as acting administrator of the agency.
She had voted for Wheeler when he was previously approved by the Senate last year as No. 2 at EPA.
Wheeler "understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards," Collins said in a statement. "However, the policies he has supported as acting administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change to our nation."
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, also voted "no," accusing Wheeler of pursuing "an agenda inconsistent with the core mission of the EPA."
In a statement, Bennet said: “Last year, U.S. carbon emissions increased, and we endured record-breaking drought and wildfire across the West. More than ever, we need strong leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency to combat climate change and protect public health.
“During his tenure at EPA, Mr. Wheeler has failed to demonstrate that he can protect the health of the American people," Bennet added. "He weakened limits on carbon emissions and mercury pollution from coal plants, unraveled higher fuel standards for vehicles, and undermined common-sense rules to limit fugitive methane while ignoring my request to provide any compelling justification for the proposed change."
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Senate Democrat, also voted against Wheeler after backing him last year. Manchin, a fierce defender of his state’s coal industry, said the EPA had gone too far in easing rules on coal.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted for Wheeler, but said she is not pleased with everything he’s done. She specifically said that he has not acting strongly enough to regulate a class of chemicals that have contaminated water supplies across the U.S.
Earlier this month, Wheeler, responding to Republican pressure, launched a process for setting a drinking water limit for two toxic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
But Murkowski told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that Wheeler’s promise, part of an action plan he announced earlier this month, is "not sufficient at this point in time."
She encouraged Wheeler to actually follow up and impose a drinking water standard, and said she is joining legislation to be introduced this week to force him to.
Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, also challenged Wheeler to be “attentive” to reducing carbon emissions, although she did not join Collins in saying he is not doing enough to combat climate change.
“He takes the issue of climate change seriously and recognizes that it is the EPA’s mission to make sure we have clean air and clean water,” Murkowski told the Washington Examiner. “Have there been instances at EPA where I have thought they have not moved fast enough? I am one who has been pushing them on this issue of PFAS. I don't think they have moved fast enough."
Since he replaced Pruitt, Wheeler has introduced major actions started by his predecessor to delay, weaken, or repeal various regulations on air, water, and climate change.
They include the EPA’s effort to weaken the Obama administration’s two signature climate change regulations: Strict fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, which were set to steadily rise through 2026, and the Clean Power Plan that was set to limit carbon emissions from power plants.
Wheeler also proposed, in December, shrinking the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, commonly referred to as WOTUS.
Wheeler will have to finalize these rules over the coming months, after taking into account public comments and the views of lawmakers.
America's Power, a trade group that represents coal producers, applauded Wheeler's confirmation.
"During his time as acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler has been seen as a thoughtful leader who understands the need for sensible environmental policies," said Michelle Bloodworth, the group's president and CEO. Wheeler's "long experience in public service demonstrates his integrity in serving EPA's mission," she said.
Colorado Politics and the Associated Press contributed.