As President-elect Donald Trump and his team seek to find their ideal candidate to run the Environmental Protection Agency, a troubling picture of his energy and environment experts is emerging.
“The early sign is that Trump ran as a climate denier and is starting to surround himself with climate deniers, and that’s just the wrong direction to go,” said Shannon Fisk, managing attorney for the coal program at Earthjustice. “The science is clear on this: Climate change is happening and human activity is causing it.”
Despite the fact that, as Fisk told ThinkProgress, “there are many Republicans out there who do not deny the climate science, who are on board with realizing the economic promise of clean energy,” Trump’s budding administration seems tightly linked to a Texas-based fossil fuel advocacy group and it’s parent organization, the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The chair of TPPF’s Fueling Freedom Project, Doug Domenech, has already been tapped by the incoming administration as head of the Interior Department transition team, and a senior fellow, Kathleen Hartnett White, is a rumored candidate for head of the EPA.
Fueling Freedom’s mission is explicitly anti-environmental.
The project’s goals include explaining “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels” and ending the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide. (The EPA has the authority — and, indeed, must — regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Not only is carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas that fuels climate change, it also contributes to ocean acidification. Significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is likely the only way humanity can avoid triggering catastrophic climate disruption.)
Fueling Freedom is part of a multi-organizational effort to fight the Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule that curbs carbon emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is seen as one of the strongest federal actions against climate change.
White disagrees with even the basic premise that carbon dioxide is problematic.
Her book (Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy) “has all kinds of examples of the really beneficial impacts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere,” she says in a 2015 YouTube video, titled “Kathleen Hartnett White discusses the benefits of CO2.”
White is not your everyday climate denier. In fact, one of the most common, and, indeed, most accessible, reasons people have to be skeptical of climate science is the idea that the world is very big, and humans couldn’t possibly affect the climate on such a large scale. (It is, but we can and do.) White doesn’t even give lip service to that idea — she just thinks that maybe all this pollution is a good thing.
“Satellites already show a greening of the earth, in part from the very small amount of carbon dioxide involved in using fossil fuels,” she says.
But White’s views, while extreme when examined in the context of the vast scientific consensus — or even in light of mainstream opinion — are not out of step with the people Trump is surrounding himself with, a group that is closely tied to a network of fossil fuel advocates and industrialists.
A leaked 2010 list of donors to the the Texas Public Policy Foundation, reported by the Texas Observer, includes the tobacco industry, private prison corporations, and wealthy families who made their fortunes in fossil fuels. The most notable of these are, of course, Charles and David Koch, whose various organizations gave more than $220,000 to TPPF in 2010. The group also received funding that year directly from oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, as well as local utility companies.
More recently, the Conservative Transparency Project estimated that the Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, two well-known dark money donors, provide more than half of the group’s funding. In 2014 alone, Donors Trust gave more than half a million dollars to the 50-person organization. Donors Capital Fund gave another $226,000, according to analysis of data from TPPF’s nonprofit filings.
Various Koch family foundations, Exxon Mobil, and other conservative donors have also been big supporters of the organization. TPPF is also tied to the likes of other familiar names in the Koch policy network, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (which funneled another $89,400 to the group in 2014).
TPPF was a top “Chair’s Level” sponsor at ALEC’s 2016 annual meeting (along with Exxon Mobil and other right-wing groups). TPPF is also a member of the State Policy Network, the Koch-funded network of more than 50 right-wing think tanks in states across the country.
Most Americans believe the scientists who overwhelmingly agree that humans are causing climate change. According to recent Gallup polling, 64 percent of Americans are worried “a fair amount” or “a great deal” about climate change. Only about a third, 36 percent, of Americans reject the scientific consensus that the climate is changing due to human activity.
There may be debates about how to tackle the far-reaching problem of climate change — and who pays for it — but there is no longer significant disagreement that it’s happening, at least outside of the halls of Congress. But denialism can stem from many places, including simple lack of exposure to the data, creationism, or the influence of public figures.
That’s where people like White and Domenech come in.
Sewing climate denial or doubt is old hat for Domenech, who, as secretary of natural resources for Virginia, invited climate skeptic Roy Spencer to speak at a 2011 environmental conference. At the time, the Roanoke News reported that the invite did not go over well.
To many of the 700-plus people attending the three-day environmental symposium this week at Virginia Military Institute, Spencer might have seemed a curious choice of speakers.
“I think to put him in the proper context, he should have been preceded by 98 other scientists who understand that our addiction to fossil fuels is a significant contributor to global warming,” Cale Jaffe said after listening to the speech.
“That to me was the big problem,” said Jaffe, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Fast-forward nearly six years later, and Domenech is still at it, disregarding science and data to promote his own extreme climate views.
“Elections have consequences and, in this case, Americans just rejected the ‘keep it in the ground’ extremism espoused by those whose only operating focus is their view that CO2 is a pollutant and climate change is real,” Domenech wrote last month in Real Clear Energy, despite the fact (yes, fact) that Hillary Clinton appears to have won the popular vote by more than two million votes, and exit polls showed that most Americans care deeply about their climate and environmental future.
He is right about one thing, though: Election do have consequences. Groups like Earthjustice and other environmental advocates are bracing themselves for what might come from the Trump administration.
As chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, White, for instance, approved a coal-fired power plant whose pollution controls couldn’t “reasonably be expected to work,” the Texas Observer reported. Ten years later, coal has proven uneconomical, and the utility that built the plant is in financial trouble. Efforts from the administration to prop up coal or ease financing for polluters could be devastating.
Few people are talking, though, about upholding Obama’s move to close coal leasing loopholes that cost American taxpayers billions each year, or to reduce the amount oil and gas companies can write off for exploration, such as the $7 billion Shell spent on a fruitless Arctic drilling plan.
“We can curb climate change and we can do it in a way that would actually be beneficial for society as a whole,” Earthjustice’s Fisk pointed out. “People who do not want to do that are not people we should be appointing to positions of power.”
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland