TipSheet: Potential Conflicts of Interest Spotlight Concerns Over Trump Agency Appointments for 2018
This special TipSheet is one in a series of reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the next year. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and for the full “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report in late January.
Slow as the pace may be, appointments to fill President Donald Trump’s environment and energy agency leadership spots will keep yielding stories in 2018.
They were certainly news in 2017. Some were confirmed. Some are still pending. And some crashed, burned and were withdrawn.
While not all the empty slots have even gotten nominations yet, the lateness and delay that was news in 2017 has started to fade away. Now, as the process of staffing up extends into Trump’s second year, we are likelier to see news coming from what the top appointees are actually doing.
That makes it a good time to take stock, then, of critical appointments at key agencies. Some of the biggest ones have been nominated and confirmed. The most obvious are Scott Pruitt as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry as energy secretary and Ryan Zinke as interior secretary.
Even with those, some themes have emerged. Trump has had a way of appointing leaders previously dedicated to opposing the legal missions of the agencies they now lead. Pruitt sued EPA some 14 times. Perry had once vowed to eliminate the Energy Department, if he could remember its name.
Nominees often lobbied industries they are now called to regulate
Another issue to watch is potential conflict of interest for appointed regulators and agency leaders. There is a general pattern in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, of officials making decisions that affect their own financial interests.
This pattern goes way beyond the environment and energy agencies. In many cases, Trump nominates officials to regulate industries whose interests they formerly lobbied for. Despite Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign rhetoric and loudly proclaimed ethics policies, ethics waivers, workarounds and outright flaunting are rather common.
The New York Times ran a piece on the massive conflicts in April 2017, focusing on widespread secrecy and lack of transparency about the conflicts. The New York Times and ProPublica tried to count them up in a piece updated Nov. 13, but the list is probably incomplete, as it focuses on regulatory rollback teams. Atlantic did a survey of some major conflicts of agency officials way back in January 2017. The Nation did one in May. Even Teen Vogue did a similar exercise, focusing mostly on the White House.
Some news outlets have tried to track all the appointments, but it is a tough job.
Key appointments to watch
To help with your reporting, here’s a list of some of the key appointments (pending, approved or failed) in the energy and environment realm.
- White House science advisor. No nominee as of Dec. 14. Usually runs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
- Council on Environmental Quality chair. Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White (former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) had a confirmation hearing Nov. 8. The Senate Environment Committee approved her Nov. 29 on a party-line vote, despite her weaknesses on climate science. The nomination had not come to the Senate Floor as of Dec. 14, pending charges of plagiarism from Democrats.
- EPA deputy administrator. Nominee Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist (clients included Murray Energy; subscription required), would be the No. 2 boss at EPA. The Senate Environment Committee approved Wheeler’s nomination Nov. 29 on a party-line vote. It had not come to the Senate floor as of Dec. 15.
- EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety. Nominee Michael Dourson withdrew his name Dec. 13. Dourson had been criticized by Democrats for downplaying the health risks of chemicals in his chemical-industry-funded research. The Senate Environment Committee had approved his nomination, but it became clear that he could not muster the votes for Senate floor approval. Trump had not nominated anyone in his place as of Dec. 15.
- EPA assistant administrator for air. Nominee Bill Wehrum won approval from the full Senate Nov. 9 in a 49-47 party-line vote. As AA for Air, Wehrum will be responsible for handling the administration’s repeal of former President Barack Obama’s signature climate measure, the Clean Power Plan. At his Oct. 4 confirmation hearing, he expressed doubt about whether human activities are causing climate change (despite scientific consensus that they are).
- EPA assistant administrator for enforcement. Nominee Susan Bodine won approval from the full Senate Dec. 7. The voice vote on the Senate floor suggested that there was little serious partisan opposition. Bodine was well known to the Environment Committee, where she had previously served as counsel on the Republican side. Democrats had complained that she had not been responsive enough to their information requests while her nomination had been pending.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke swearing in David Bernhardt as deputy secretary Aug. 1, 2017. Bernhardt most recently worked as a coal industry lobbyist. Photo: U.S. Department of Interior, Flickr Creative Commons
EPA assistant administrator for water. Nominee David Ross was approved by the full Senate Dec. 14 on a voice vote, after approval Oct. 25 from the Senate Environment Committee. Most recently Ross had led environmental enforcement for the GOP administration in Wisconsin. As assistant attorney general in Wyoming in 2015, he had sued EPA in opposition (subscription required) to its Clean Water Rule, and on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2012 had sued EPA in opposition to its Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.
- EPA general counsel. Nominee Matthew Z. Leopold won approval from the full Senate by voice vote on Dec. 14. He had sailed through (subscription required) the Senate Environment Committee Oct. 25 by voice vote. Leopold had spent eight years at the Justice Department’s environmental division.
- Interior Department deputy secretary. Nominee David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate July 24 by a 53-43 vote (subscription required) ). In the Interior Department’s number two position, he will have big impact. During the George W. Bush administration, he had served as Interior’s solicitor general and deputy chief of staff. More recently, he had been a coal lobbyist, and environmentalists opposed him as a “walking conflict of interest,” and a “fox guarding the henhouse” (subscription required).
- Interior Department assistant secretary for land and minerals. The Senate confirmed Joe Balash Dec. 7 by a 61-38 vote. He will be the agency’s czar of oil and mineral extraction, overseeing the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. He had been chief of staff to Alaska’s Sen. Dan Sullivan and a commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. He has supported drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
- Interior Department assistant secretary of water and science. Nominee Tim Petty was waved through the Senate Energy Committee Dec. 12 and awaits floor action. He would oversee the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation. He served previously as an acting assistant secretary for water under George W. Bush.
- Interior Department assistant secretary for insular areas. Nominee Douglas William Domenech was confirmed by the Senate Sept. 13 on a voice vote. His family is from Puerto Rico, he has a forestry background and he served in the executive branch under George W. Bush.
- Agriculture Department chief scientist. Nominee Sam Clovis, a former talk-show host, admitted he had no science background. But he was an early Trump supporter in Iowa and later held high positions in the Trump campaign, transition and White House. What did him in, though, was disclosure of his role in the Trump-Russia connection. He withdrew his name from consideration Nov. 1.
- Energy Department deputy secretary. The Senate Aug. 3 confirmed nominee Dan R. Brouillette by a 79-17 vote. He had previously been chief of staff of the House Energy Committee and done a stint as assistant secretary of energy for congressional affairs.
- Energy Department undersecretary for science. Nominee Paul Dabbar won confirmation from the full Senate Nov. 2 by voice vote. The Energy Department is one of the top federal science agencies. Dabbar, once a nuclear submariner, has been an investment banker.
- Energy Department assistant secretary for electricity. Nominee Bruce J. Walker was confirmed by the Senate Oct. 5 on a voice vote. An engineer and lawyer, he had held a number of positions working on electric grid and infrastructure problems.
- Energy Department assistant secretary for congressional affairs. The nomination of Melissa F. Burnison was sent to the Hill fairly late (Nov. 15). There had been no action as of Dec. 15. Her Hill experience includes a stint at the House Natural Resources Committee, which has tended to favor extraction of energy resources. She has most recently been director of federal affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
- Energy Information Administration administrator. Nominee Linda Capuano was nominated Nov. 2 and won quick approval from the Senate Energy Committee Dec. 2. The EIA, nominally under the rubric of DOE, has traditionally been independent of politics, since the numbers it produces move both markets and policy decisions. She has an engineering, policy and academic research background. No floor action as of Dec. 15.
- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is a little-known but hugely important regulatory body largely in charge of interstate energy matters like pipelines and electric grids. Some semblance of fairness is found in the requirement that no more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same party. They serve staggered five-year terms. Neil Chatterjee is a holdover from the Obama era who was appointed chairman by Trump. More recently under Trump, commissioners Robert Powelson, Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre were installed, giving the FERC a quorum and bringing it up to full strength. McIntyre is now chairman, and will preside over a decision on Energy Secretary Perry’s proposal to subsidize the failing coal and nuclear power industries.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator. Trump nominated Barry Myers to run NOAA (a unit of the Commerce Department). The agency is important for climate data, weather forecasting, hurricane warnings, fisheries and all kinds of science. It collects the raw weather data from satellites and instruments and gives the data (plus forecasts) away free to the taxpaying public. Private weather companies (like Accuweather) use it to make profits. Myers is CEO of Accuweather (i.e., a businessman not a scientist) and has advocated privatizing the National Weather Service, saying it should not be competing with private companies like his. Previous NOAA chiefs have criticized his conflict of interest. Environmentalists and NOAA employees have opposed his appointment. The Senate Commerce Committee advanced his nomination Dec. 13 on a 14-13 party-line vote. The full Senate had not acted as of Dec. 15.
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This body, which regulates the nation’s nuclear power reactors, lost so many members that it was set to lose a quorum last June 30. In the nick of time, Trump nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Chairman Kristine Svinicki to a third five-year term. The Senate vote was 88-9. She had first been appointed to the five-member body by George W. Bush and was reappointed by Obama. Trump had designated her chairman in January. Trump also nominated two other commissioners: Annie Caputo (approved by Senate Environment July 12; pending floor action) and David Wright (approved by committee July 12; pending floor action).