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Trump to tap longtime coal lobbyist for EPA's No. 2 spot

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump will nominate a prominent coal lobbyist and former Senate aide, Andrew Wheeler, to serve as the Environmental Protection Agency's deputy administrator, according to two senior administration officials.

Wheeler, a principal at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, is a lobbyist for coal giant Murray Energy and served as a top aide for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., when Inhofe chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He has represented Murray Energy, whose CEO Bob Murray is a prominent supporter of the president, since 2009.

In addition to tapping Wheeler, according to the officials, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is preparing to tap three conservatives to head three key divisions within the agency. Trump will nominate Bill Wehrum as associate administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation; Matt Leopold to serve as EPA General Counsel; and David Ross as Assistant Administrator for Office of Water.

Both Wheeler and EPA officials declined to comment Friday. Wheeler's nomination was first reported by Axios.

The news of these appointments will likely cheer those who criticized how the agency operated under former president Barack Obama, and anger environmentalists. Wheeler has been an outspoken critic of nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as scientific bodies such as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In March 2010 Wheeler commented on a National Journal blog that the IPCC "has functioned more as a political body than a scientific body" and said that the agency should revisit its 2009 endangerment finding that carbon dioxide emissions pose a threat to public health. He suggested lawmakers back a proposal at the time by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to overturn the endangerment finding and "allow legislators to craft sensible energy policy that can promote energy independence without killing our domestic production of fossil fuels."

Leopold, who served as general counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from March 2013 to February 2015 and at the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division from January 2007 to February 2013, has also criticized the federal government for regulatory overreach.

"The problem today I see us facing . . . is the federal government's expanding regulatory reach," Leopold said at a Federalist Society gathering last year in Florida. "It's crowding out the proper role for the state governments to do what they do best. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't have robust environmental laws to protect air, water, and land. Just the opposite."

But he said Congress had delegated too much of its authority to federal regulatory agencies such as the EPA, which had been overly aggressive in imposing new regulations.

"The question is not whether we (the states) are cooperating," Leopold said. "The question is, where is the space the states are supposed to occupy, and is the federal government stepping too far into that space."

Wehrum had been nominated by then-President George W. Bush to head the office of air and radiation, but withdrew his nomination in 2007 after Democrats complained that the plan he helped craft to limit pollution from power plants - known as Clear Skies - was too weak.

Ross now serves as Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General and director of the Environmental Protection Unit for the state's Justice Department. He previously had worked in private practice on environmental and land use law.

When Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel named Ross director of the environmental unit in August, Schimel said the department "takes seriously its role in environmental enforcement and the addition of Dave Ross to my leadership team will offer a new management perspective, and two decades of environmental litigation and consulting experience."