By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to run the agency permanently, the White House said, placing a former energy lobbyist at the helm of the nation's top environmental regulator.
The widely anticipated nomination provides Trump another avid supporter of his deregulatory and pro-fossil fuels agenda, but without the constant criticism over alleged mismanagement that plagued Wheeler's predecessor, Scott Pruitt.
The decision pleased Republican lawmakers and industry groups eager for less onerous federal environmental oversight, but drew criticism from environmental groups critical of the EPA's direction under Trump.
"The only thing Wheeler is going to protect at the EPA is the profits of polluters," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Wheeler took the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency on an interim basis in July after Pruitt resigned amid a slew of controversies that included his high spending on first-class travel, round-the-clock security, and office equipment.
Wheeler, 54, has overseen a number of deregulatory efforts since Pruitt's departure, including proposals weakening Obama-era rules limiting carbon and mercury emissions from power plants, and an initiative to lift a summertime ban on higher ethanol blends of gasoline that was enacted to curb smog.
In November, Trump announced during a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House that he had made up his mind to make Wheeler permanent, saying he had been doing a "fantastic job."
The U.S. Senate, led by Trump's fellow Republicans, is expected to approve Wheeler's nomination.
"Acting Administrator Wheeler has done an outstanding job leading EPA and is well qualified to run the agency on a permanent basis. I will work with committee members to get him confirmed," said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate's environment committee.
Wheeler worked at the EPA in the 1990s and later in the Senate under Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a skeptic of mainstream climate science, before moving to the private sector as a lobbyist and consultant.
He has said he is "not at all ashamed" of his lobbying for Murray Energy Corp, the nation's leading underground coal mining company, the focus of criticism by environmentalists.
Wheeler had also lobbied for utility Xcel Energy Inc and consulted for biofuels industry group Growth Energy, agricultural merchant and biofuels producer Archer Daniels Midland Co and International Paper Co .
Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, said she has been pleased by Wheeler's work so far on the nation's biofuels policy, a critical program for producers of ethanol, and wanted him to help protect demand for the corn-based fuel.
"A commitment to renewable fuel is very important," she told Reuters in an interview.
Wheeler has said the EPA under his leadership would follow the same course as under Pruitt, prioritizing cleaning up industrial Superfund sites - areas contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup - and financing investments in water infrastructure.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Additional reporting by Chris Prentice; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)