White House Drops Fossil Fuels Evangelist as Nominee for Top Environment Post

Kathleen Hartnett White, who said coal helped end slavery and CO2 was not a pollutant but 'the gas of life', had struggled with basic science in her Senate hearing.

Kathleen Hartnett White, shown here in 2016 as the Trump transition team considered candidates for top posts, asked to withdraw her nomination to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Updated with White House announcing that the request to withdraw White's nomination has been sent to the Senate.

The White House has withdrawn its attempt to make fossil fuel advocate and climate policy opponent Kathleen Hartnett White the president's top environmental adviser. Her nomination apparently failed to garner enough support among Senate Republicans after a confirmation process her critics called "excruciating."

After the Washington Post reported on Saturday that the Trump administration was planning to withdraw White's nomination as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, the White House released a statement indicating that the nominee herself had made the decision. 

The administration's statement said that White, a fellow at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, asked that her name be pulled from further consideration, effective immediately.

"I want to thank President Trump for his confidence in me, and I will continue to champion his policies and leadership on environmental and energy issues of critical importance to making our nation great, prosperous and secure again," White said in the statement, as published in the Washington Post.

White said ending her bid was "in the best interest of facilitating confirmation of the president's nominees throughout his administration, as well the needs of my family and work."

The White House confirmed on Monday that the request to withdraw White's nomination had been sent to the Senate.

White Considered CO2 'The Gas of Life'

White was the second Trump administration nominee whose name was pulled last week—less than a month after the White House renominated a batch of controversial nominees that the Senate had declined to consider in 2017. Former White House deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland withdrew her nomination to be ambassador of Singapore earlier in the week. McFarland faced accusations that she had deceived the Senate on contacts with Russia by her former boss, Michael Flynn.

Although the Senate has approved other Trump nominees committed to rolling back environmental regulations, White stood out in her unabashed advocacy for fossil fuels.

White, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a fossil fuel industry-funded think tank, had written an essay on "the moral case for fossil fuels" and a 2014 blog post in which she theorized that "fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery." She had argued that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant but "the gas of life"; that the human contribution to climate change is "very uncertain"; and that ozone, or smog, isn't harmful unless "you put your mouth over the tailpipe of a car for eight hours every day." 

She also struggled with questions about basic environmental science in her confirmation hearing (see video below, starting at 4:50).

Republican Support Wasn't Clear Cut

The former Texas environmental regulator was also a strong opponent of government subsidies and programs to promote renewable energy and ethanol, making her path difficult in a Senate where support for those programs crosses party boundaries.

No Republican senators had formally come out against White's nomination, although Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said during a November hearing that she was concerned about White's "extremist" views. Environmental groups said they were working to persuade at least half a dozen wavering GOP senators to oppose her.

With Democrats gaining a Senate seat in December with the election of Doug Jones in Alabama, Trump nominees have few votes to spare. If Democrats vote together, two GOP defections are enough to kill any nomination. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who took no formal position on White, had already signaled her willingness to oppose the Trump administration on environmental nominees. She cast the sole GOP vote against Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

The League of Conservation Voters had urged people in Maine, Montana and Nevada to call their senators to oppose White, and its affiliate Chispa had opposed White in Arizona.

"Withdrawing Kathleen Hartnett White's nomination is the right thing to do, and I believe it is past time for this administration to nominate a thoughtful environmental and public health champion to lead this critical office in the federal government," Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said after hearing reports of White's plan to withdraw.

He had described White's testimony before the committee as the most excruciating he had heard in 17 years in the Senate.

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