Why The Energy Department Hires Industry Advocates As Regulators

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CREDIT: Natural Gas Association

The Department of Energy (DoE) announced the hiring of two senior aides on Tuesday who will join its Office of Fossil Energy, and who both have close ties to the fossil fuel industry and its interests.

Paula Gant will be the Deputy Assistant Secretary for oil and natural gas, while Julio Friedmann will be the Deputy Assistant Secretary for clean coal.

Gant holds a Ph.D in economics, and was senior vice president for policy and planning for the American Gas Association, a gas utility trade group. Friedmann is a Ph.D geologist, and comes to the DoE from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federally-funded research organization, where he worked in carbon capture and sequestration. His resume also lists work with ExxonMobil and board memberships with the National Coal Council, a coal industry group that lobbies the government. He has also worked with energy companies, as well as with clean energy research organizations.

The hiring of industry figures in the federal agency that regulates it may seem like a conflict of interest, as they are able to sway decisions that greatly affect former employers and colleagues, but it is common practice. One oil industry lobbyist, Philip Cooney, was appointed as Chief of Staff to the George W. Bush Administration’s Environmental Quality Board in 2001. He resigned in 2005, when it was revealed he tampered with government reports to cast doubt on the reality of climate change, so he moved directly from the White House to a job with ExxonMobil.

The Office of Fossil Energy will contain personnel with industry experience and those connections can be helpful to a regulatory body as long as it is accomplishing its mission in an ethical and transparent manner. Christopher Smith, acting assistant secretary for Fossil Energy, praised the new hires’ connections, saying the DoE was “fortunate to have attracted such qualified people with relevant industry and technical experience.” Indeed, Smith has an energy industry background, having worked with two major international oil companies for eleven years before his appointment.

Gas companies would like to see exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) expanded, as gas production is booming, and the DoE has the power to approve or deny export permits. And while advocates like to tout the fact that gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, methane leakage is high enough to gut any climate benefit, so LNG exports also face opposition from those who want to limit climate change. As Gant comes from the American Gas Association, it isn’t difficult to guess which side she will find more persuasive.

The very existence of Friedmann’s clean coal post is boon for the coal industry. The possibility of “clean coal” is highly questionable, and industry has pushed the idea for decades to allay concerns about the environment and climate change. While the DoE has pursued a variety of worthwhile efforts to make fossil fuel production generate less CO2, it cannot do enough to make coal a fuel that can be safely pursued. But the DoE will continue to fund research and demonstration projects that support its desirability as a climate change solution, fostering positive public perceptions of coal, and decreasing the perceived urgency of abandoning it.