February 5, 2019 / 4:44 PM / 9 months ago

UPDATE 1-U.S. Senate environment panel okays Trump's pick to lead EPA

(Adds vote count, comment from environmental group)

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - A key Senate committee approved U.S. President Donald Trump’s new pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, putting the former coal lobbyist a step closer to becoming the permanent head of America’s top environmental regulator.

Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Washington insider with years of experience in Congress, was nominated by Trump last month to replace Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July after widespread criticism for alleged ethical missteps.

His nomination has cheered business interests keen to see reduced regulation, but upset Democrats and conservation groups worried that environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration are going too far.

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works advanced Wheeler’s nomination with 11 Republican members in favor and 10 Democrats against. A full Senate vote must now be scheduled to complete his confirmation.

“Mr. Wheeler has done an outstanding job as the acting administrator over the past six months,” Republican Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the committee, said.

Shelley Moore Capito, Republican Senator from West Virginia, said Wheeler worked to improve transparency at the agency.

Wheeler was not present at the meeting.

Democratic Senators questioned Wheeler’s years of past experience serving for the interests of the industries that he would be regulating.

“In many instances, Mr. Wheeler has gone further than his predecessor in his rejection of important measures,” Democrat Senator Tom Carper, ranking member of the committee, said in his opening remarks.

While running EPA on an interim basis, Wheeler oversaw the weakening of Obama-era rules limiting carbon and mercury emissions from power plants, and advanced an initiative to lift a summertime ban on higher ethanol blends of gasoline that was enacted to curb smog.

Like Pruitt, he 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.

And during his confirmation hearing last month, he said he did not believe climate change was not 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.

“Andrew Wheeler is ... a coal lobbyist masquerading as the EPA Administrator,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement. (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, editing by Richard Valdmanis, David Gregorio and Susan Thomas)

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