Much of the discussion around President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general has focused on whether Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is racist.
But another question worth raising is: Will he protect Americans from environmental degradation?
Early evidence suggests he won’t. As a senator, Sessions has longstanding ties to the fossil fuel industry. And, as it turns out, he is even an oilman himself, a fact that he did not disclose in federally mandated financial reports.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post discovered that Sessions had failed to disclose oil lease income from land he owns in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge. The land has been leased to an oil company, the paper reported.
“We reported the income on my [tax] return as coming from the property I own and the property the oil well is on,” Sessions told fellow senators during his confirmation hearing Tuesday. “I did not note in [the financial disclosures] report that it was specifically oil income.”
“I am troubled by any omissions,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), told the paper. “But this is particularly troubling because this ownership interest involves oil and gas holdings connected to a federal wildlife refuge.”
The article says the land generates about $4,700 per year, which might seem like a nice boost for millions of Americans, but it is a tiny amount compared to the money Sessions gets from other people’s oil holdings.
In 2014, when he ran unopposed for re-election to the Senate, Sessions received nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. During his political career, the senator has received at least $1.9 million from energy and natural resources interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sessions’ single largest donor is Southern Company, a massive energy company that “owns electric utilities in four states, natural gas distribution utilities in seven states.” Sessions has also received campaign contributions from Exxon, which is currently being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its role in deceiving investors about the risk of climate change.
During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Sessions said, “I don’t deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory has always struck me as plausible.” But he followed that up with a clarification: “Of course, the question is how much is happening and what the reaction should be, too.”
As a senator, Sessions has been an outspoken critic of efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
It is impossible to look at the data — decades of above-average temperatures, rapidly declining sea ice, and record highs — and deny that the climate is changing. While there are still die-hard climate deniers, many opponents of climate action are now more likely to question how much of the warming is due to human activity (there is near-perfect correlation between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and global warming) or what the response should be. Sessions seems to think the response should be inaction. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters record is 7 percent — meaning that he has voted on the pro-environment side of legislation a mere 7 percent of the time.
Under the direction of the U.S. Attorney General, the Department of Justice routinely investigates and prosecutes environmental crimes. Recently, it has been involved in holding Volkswagen accountable for manipulating emissions tests, prosecuting Princess Cruise Lines for illegal pollution, and ensuring that illegal fishing is stopped.
The Department of Justice also works with other agencies — such as the EPA and the SEC — on enforcement and to defend U.S. regulation.
Sessions would join a cadre of Trump appointees (if confirmed) who have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, including Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated to head the State Department, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has close ties to oil billionaire Harold Hamm.