President Donald Trump's chief environmental officer began his Senate confirmation at a hearing Wednesday.
Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, took Wheeler to task about a meeting he held with coal executive Robert Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry in 2017.
Wheeler's roughly six-month tenure as the agency's acting administrator has been far more low-key than that of the man he replaced, Scott Pruitt.
Murray had sought some of the EPA's coal initiatives under Wheeler, which included signing a rule easing federal regulation of toxic coal ash, removing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.
In November, the president said he meant to nominate Wheeler permanently to the position, saying at a White House event that "he's done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him".
He said EPA staff, whom he did not identify, had concluded that those rollbacks would ultimately lead to health gains.
Carper cited the rollbacks in auto mileage standards and toxic mercury emissions under Wheeler as examples of unsafe deregulation, saying they went beyond what industries themselves wanted.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said that Wheeler failed to mention climate change in his opening remarks, and asked him about his belief in the climate crisis.
Trump, who has repeatedly cast doubt on climate change and has indicated his intention to withdraw from a global pact to fight it, dismissed the report after its release, saying "I don't believe it". Sanders asked, shouting at times. "I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir".
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"I know that you have been a great acting administrator at the EPA, and would certainly fill that role in a permanent capacity", said Sen. That's the worst-case scenario, what you are proposing here.
I'm pleased Mr. Wheeler agrees-he said the EPA is committed to getting E-15 done before the summer driving season. Republican lawmakers said the protections had burdened farmers and others.
Wheeler's confirmation is expected to sail through the Republican-controlled Senate despite Democratic opposition.
But environmental groups say his lobbying work immediately before, for industries regulated by the EPA, should disqualify him outright.
Democrats on the committee urged Wheeler, a former energy industry lobbyist and Republican congressional aide, to be an advocate for climate-oriented policy changes.
"I did not work on the plan, I do not have a copy of it".
"I have not used the hoax word myself", Wheeler said.
"It is hard to understand how preparing you for next week's confirmation hearing credibly falls within any of the categories listed in EPA's Contingency Plan, particularly the category of employee that is 'necessary to protect life and property, '" wrote Senators Tom Carper, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in a letter to the EPA.
"He understands how the regulatory process works and the type of effort that is required to develop effective and legally defensible regulatory reforms", said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at industry-focused law firm Bracewell and a former EPA air administrator.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA's Office of the Inspector General alleging that Wheeler's oversight of those and other rollback proposals at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two years. The Associated Press reports that EPA Spokesman John Konkus called that charge "baseless".