Trump’s Top Environment Pick, a Fossil Fuels Evangelist, May Be in Trouble

Kathleen Hartnett White’s past actions in Texas involving radiation in drinking water and opposition to ethanol could turn Republicans against her.

Kathleen Hartnett White at Trump Tower. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Kathleen Hartnett White has called carbon dioxide "the gas of life" and has written about what she considers a "moral case for fossil fuels." Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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[Update: The White House withdrew White’s nomination in early February.] 

Kathleen Hartnett White, the former Texas regulator who has extolled the social benefits of carbon dioxide and asserted that coal helped end slavery, faces a difficult road to Senate confirmation as top White House environmental adviser, according to lobbyists and Capitol Hill sources.

They say that White, still awaiting a committee vote that has yet to be scheduled, is the most endangered of President Donald Trump‘s environmental nominees. Her embattled bid to chair the Council on Environmental Quality underscores larger problems for the White House in filling key roles throughout the federal government.

Although Trump already lags behind his three immediate predecessors both in making nominations and having them confirmed, he assured himself further fights by doubling down on 75 controversial nominees that the Senate returned to the White House for reconsideration before the December recess.

Trump sent the names, including White’s, right back to the Senate, where he now has one fewer Republican vote to count on, since the election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama. If Democrats stick together, it would only take two GOP defections to sink any nominee. Environmental groups are working on swaying at least a half-dozen Republican senators who may be wavering due to White’s past stances on issues important in their home states—including ethanol, renewable energy and radiation contamination in water.

The League of Conservation Voters says it has volunteers working in three key states to encourage constituents to urge their senators to oppose White’s nomination: Maine, Montana and Nevada. LCV’s Latino organizing affiliate, Chispa, also has been speaking out against White in Arizona. “Kathleen Hartnett White is laughably unqualified,” said Sara Jordan, LCV’s legislative representative. “She’s an anti-science zealot with a long record of distorting science, spouting conspiracy theories and denying serious pollution problems in Texas.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has the strongest environmental voting record among Senate Republicans, was the only GOP senator who voted against confirmation of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and against the sole assistant administrator approved so far: William Wehrum, a former fossil fuel and chemical industry lawyer who now runs the agency’s air office. Collins office did not respond to queries from InsideClimate News on her stance on White. Collins told E&E Daily earlier this month that she had “seen some excerpts” from White’s confirmation hearing but had not yet seen the whole thing. “So I don’t know whether they were in context or whether they represent how the hearing went in general,” Collins said.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said: “In the 17 years I have been in the Senate, I have never sat through a hearing as excruciating as Ms. White’s.”

White’s View of CO2: ‘The Gas of Life’

White, a senior fellow at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative and fossil fuel industry-funded think tank, faced a fusillade of questions about her comments over the years that carbon dioxide is 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.” Senators entered into the record her 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.”

But the most memorable exchange of the hearing was her halting parry of a series of ocean science questions lobbed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). She said she didn’t know about ocean absorption of heat or carbon or even whether the law of thermodynamics applied to seawater (starting at 4:50 in the video below and at 9:40). “I do not have any kind of expertise or even much layman study of the ocean dynamics and climate change issues,” she said.

Tweet from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about Kathleen Harnett White hearing

In the wake of the hearing, Texas Public Policy Foundation Executive Vice President Kevin Roberts wrote an op-ed on her behalf, noting that pollution levels in Texas declined during her tenure as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “Kathleen is an effective regulator,” he wrote in The Hill. “And that’s what is called for in this appointment—not a scientist.”

But locally important environmental issues will be more important than climate change in deciding White’s fate, said lobbyists and Congressional staffers, who asked not to be named as the politically sensitive arm-twisting continues.

One of Trump’s environmental nominees already has been felled by this kind of issue. Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with close ties to the chemical industry, Trump’s choice to lead EPA’s chemical safety office, withdrew his nomination after North Carolina’s two Republican senators voiced opposition, noting their concerns about water contamination in their state.

Drinking Water Contamination and Ethanol

In Montana and Arizona, two states that have grappled with radioactive contamination in drinking water, environmentalists are raising the issue of White’s actions as a Texas regulator to lower statistical data on alpha radiation in drinking water to protect utilities from EPA scrutiny.

In states with large renewable energy industries, like Nevada and Arizona, White’s opponents are focusing on her history of strong statements against solar and wind power, which she has called a “false hope.”

And it’s unclear whether farm-state senators are satisfied with White’s attempted about-face on ethanol; she said she would support the president in his support of the Renewable Fuels Standard she once decried. Under questioning from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), White declined to commit to keeping the RFS in place through at least 2022. Fischer said she was concerned about White’s “extremist views,” although she did vote to advance her nomination to the floor in November—a vote the committee will now have to reprise.

Trump’s other environmental nominees, even though they are opposed by Democrats, have done better than White in avoiding the political hot-button issues that would erode support in the majority party.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Jan. 18 to advance the nomination of Jeffrey Bossert Clark to head the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, and he awaits a vote by the full Senate.

Clark is an industry lawyer who has challenged the federal government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and was part of the legal team that represented BP in lawsuits stemming from the nation’s worst oil spill. He also was part of the legal team that successfully defended Exxon and other oil companies in a 2012 climate damages lawsuit brought by the Alaskan town of Kivalina, which is threatened by sea level rise.

Path May Be Easier for Coal Lobbyist Wheeler

Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s appointee to serve as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, seems at first glance to be in a position similar to White’s—awaiting a second vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee after his nomination’s quick round-trip back to the White House early this month.

But Wheeler, who served as a personal staffer for two years and committee staffer for 12 years under Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), including as the Environment and Public Works Committee’s chief counsel, is well known by the senators, and lobbyists and committee staff expect that he will have an easier time gaining approval. Carper, even though he voted against the coal industry lobbyist in November, added: “He may have demonstrated a more transparent and straightforward approach to engaging with members of the committee than any other Trump administration EPA nominee thus far. Some would say that’s a low bar, but that’s a fact.”

Inhofe was effusive in praise for his former staffer, whom he said he knew “better than anyone except maybe his mother.” Inhofe credited Wheeler for bipartisan legislative accomplishments during his tenure as committee chairman, including the energy bills of 2005 and 2007, which increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards and promoted use of ethanol and energy efficiency.

“A well-qualified, experienced, and dedicated public servant,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee chairman, said of Wheeler. Barrasso’s support for White was notably muted in contrast: “If confirmed, Ms. White will bring her extensive experience to the job of CEQ,” Barrasso said. Inhofe noted on White: “We have people out there that are singing her praises.” As for himself, Inhofe said, “I don’t know Kathleen White as well, obviously, as I do Andrew Wheeler.”

Overall, Trump’s Filling Posts at a Glacial Pace

The controversy over White has further slowed already glacial progress in filling key posts throughout the administration, particularly in environmental slots. Trump has confirmed appointees in only five of the 13 executive posts at the EPA; for seven of the positions, there are no nominees. At the Interior Department, the White House still has not chosen nominees for seven positions, including such high-profile posts as the head of the National Parks Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the State Department, there is no nominee for undersecretary for economic growth, energy and environment.

As chair of the CEQ, White would be at the nexus of all federal interagency discussion on energy and environment issues. Carper said the importance of the post “cannot be overstated.” “You’re kind of like the orchestra leader—not playing an instrument but making sure everyone is playing from the same music and in harmony,” he said.

But for now, the Trump administration’s environmental ensemble is playing with no one at the podium, and many empty seats in the band.