As Biden Names Advisers, Climate Activists Push Back on Fossil Fuel Influence

Environmental groups are ratcheting up a pressure campaign against President-elect Joe Biden’s potential cabinet picks who have ties to the fossil fuel industry as Biden names new White House staffers this week. Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who will serve as Biden’s director of the Office of Public Engagement, sparked immediate backlash from climate activists, including Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash, who called the pick “a betrayal.”

Richmond, a co-chair of the Biden-Harris transition team who will give up his seat to become a senior White House adviser, has been an ally of oil and gas companies and received nearly $341,000 in campaign donations this cycle from the sector — more than any other industry that donated, according to OpenSecrets. To make matters worse, Richmond was also one of a few Democrats who voted in favor of authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.

The newly named staffers are the latest development in a transition process that continues despite Trump administration roadblocks, and Richmond is not the only name sparking environmentalists’ ire: More than 70 groups signed a letter this week urging Biden not to include former Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in his incoming administration.

Moniz, who has been informally advising the Biden campaign since May, is a contender not only to reprise his role as the nation’s top energy official but also for a new international climate envoy post. He was the principal architect of Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, and has served as a consultant for oil and gas giant BP and currently sits on the board of the electric utility Southern Company.

Many of the same organizations also signed onto a separate open letter to Biden’s transition team urging him to remove former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from consideration for the role of agriculture secretary, noting that she “has raised $633,000 from the fossil fuel industry— more than any other incumbent Senate Democrat during her two elections.”

Environmentalists are cautious about another leading contender for energy secretary, a former Google executive who previously led an Energy Department office that funded research and development of experimental power projects. Stanford University engineering professor Arun Majumdar was named to lead the Biden transition team for the agency and is also on Biden’s short list. Majumdar shares connections to Moniz through the Energy Department, Moniz’s nonprofit, and holds positions at private equity and venture capital firms, LittleSis found.

Stronger climate advocates are reportedly being considered for a number of departments and feature elsewhere on the transition’s agency review teams. The New York Times reported this week that Michèle Flournoy, a potential pick for defense secretary, and Lael Brainard, a potential Treasury pick, are both proponents of aggressive climate policy.

Meanwhile, Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy Executive Director Cecilia Martinez heads the team reviewing the Council on Environmental Quality. Maggie Thomas, who worked on presidential candidates Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren’s climate policies, is on the team for the Department of Interior.

The Biden team is zeroing-in on less traditional environmental agencies and have included dozens of climate experts on teams ranging from Justice to Agriculture. Climate activists were particularly heartened to see such climate policy wonks as the Center for American Progress’s Andy Green and the Roosevelt Institute’s Todd Tucker on teams for agencies like Treasury and Commerce, for example.

Environmentalists hope to see financial-sector appointees be fully vetted in regard to their commitment to Biden’s climate plan — including ensuring such appointees are fully divested from fossil fuel industry investments and ties. In fact, the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition released a set of criteria and questions for potential Treasury and financial-sector appointees this month designed to do just that.

Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International, is one environmental activist actively dialoguing with the Biden transition team about its agency review teams and potential appointees. He worked on the recent letter against Moniz and on the Stop the Money Pipeline financial-appointee criteria. He told Truthout the conversations he’s had with the transition team have been mixed thus far.

“They’re absolutely willing to talk to us and understand that we’re an important part of the base that got him elected,” Rees said. “We’ve certainly felt like we’ve been able to have that conversation, but it’s Joe Biden; he’s a lifelong politician. He is very much seeking other input as well, so we are under no illusions that everything we’re saying is being listened to, but we definitely want to continue that dialogue and continue to push them.”

Meanwhile, the Sunrise Movement, which helped to shape Biden’s revised climate plan as part of the Biden-Sanders unity task force, has released its own climate mandate outlining a number of progressive cabinet picks for key agencies. The list includes Sen. Bernie Sanders for labor secretary, California Rep. Barbara Lee for secretary of state, and Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator.

Biden’s top candidate to lead the EPA is said to instead be Mary Nichols, California’s climate and clean air regulator, who has been floated by other climate groups as a favorable pick. Still, the EPA’s agency review team includes Michael McCabe, despite his serving as a consultant to DuPont in the company’s fight against regulations of toxic chemicals like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The Sunrise Movement is also calling for the establishment of an Office for Climate Mobilization modeled after a World War II-era executive office formed to coordinate all government agencies involved in the war effort. The Biden team is seriously considering the creation of such an office or a similarly-styled coordinating council modeled after the national security and economic councils.

“The first and most important thing that Joe Biden can do right now is show he is serious about forcefully addressing the climate crisis, and a part of doing that would be establishing an Office of Climate Mobilization,” said Neha Desaraju, a decentralized communications coordinator with the Sunrise Movement. “Biden’s climate plan during the election was more popular than he was, and it just goes to show that people want bold action.”

The Biden team is expected to tap Ali Zaidi, a former climate adviser in the Obama White House who now serves as deputy secretary of energy in New York State, as the new office’s “climate czar,” according to The New York Times.

Still, climate advocates and progressives are wary of former corporate lobbyists like Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s campaign chairman who will soon be counselor to the president. Ricchetti was Biden’s vice-presidential chief of staff in the Obama White House, but his history as a registered lobbyist made him controversial at the time because it violated the administration’s ethics rules.

Other corporate lobbyists listed on Biden’s transition agency review teams send mixed signals about whether or not Biden will actually hold to a Roosevelt-style presidency which promises a climate and economic stimulus-driven recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Such an all-of-government approach becomes all the more challenging if Democrats are unable to take the Senate after Georgia’s January 5 special election.

How the president spends his crucial first 100 days is already being shaped by corporate representatives from Lyft, Airbnb, Amazon Web Services and WestExec Advisors, whose tech industry experience dominates a key agency review team for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB’s little-known Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) plays an outsized role determining all regulations across the federal government.

OIRA’s behind-the-scenes power can’t be overstated, as its team of fewer than 50 economists use cost-benefit analysis to determine whether protecting people and the planet from toxic chemicals and emissions is “worth it.” The Office proved a powerful administrative gatekeeper during the Obama administration, blocking or delaying agency rules that could have furthered the administration’s climate goals. No matter how aggressive new appointees at the EPA or Energy Department might be, experts say corporate capture of OMB will bog down bold climate action.

The OMB agency review team member with the most experience is arguably Bridget Dooling, with 10 years of OIRA experience in both Democratic and Republican administrations. She’s now a research professor with the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, working under Susan Dudley, President George W. Bush’s OIRA head. The Center is funded by Charles Koch and the ExxonMobil Foundation.

“Obama’s OIRA was probably the worst set of appointments in his entire eight years as president,” says Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group tracking the Biden transition. “So OIRA under Obama did a lot to hinder the best efforts of [former Obama EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson and the EPA in the first term.”

Hauser cautions, however, that the transition process is still far from over, and that Democrats must be ready to utilize the Vacancies Act and Recess Appointments Clause to maneuver around Republicans who are likely to block Biden’s agency nominations.

Even in a scenario in which the Democrats have a Senate majority, Biden is going to have an executive branch where most of the Senate-confirmable positions won’t be confirmed in the first couple months, Hauser says. “Regardless, you always have to work through the Vacancies Act in order to make sure the government is as functional as possible on day one, and that’s even more the case when you’re taking over for the most incompetent and corrupt president in American history,” he tells Truthout.

Environmental activists are looking to executive action as the primary tool for passing bold climate policy, since even if Democrats win Georgia’s runoff races, the party will hold the Senate by only a razor-sharp margin. “You’re going to be writing [conservative Democratic Sen.] Joe Manchin’s climate policy,” says Oil Change International’s Rees. “It’s going to be a pretty tough situation for any ambitious climate policy even if [Democrats win the Senate] and is perhaps at best a toss-up.”

Rees and other environmental leaders are backing a list of 10 executive actions that Biden could take in the first 10 days of his presidency to constrain fossil fuel production, implement a just transition and build out renewable energy infrastructure. Topping the list is a declaration of a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act. Such a move would allow Biden to expedite reversals of Trump’s environmental rollbacks and reinstate the crude oil export ban.

One of Biden’s first executive orders will reportedly be to revive an Obama-era mandate that every executive agency incorporate climate change into its policies. The president-elect has committed to 46 other executive-level actions mostly focused on reining in existing sources of pollution, such as aggressive methane pollution limits at oil and gas drilling sites, and barring new fossil fuel extraction on federal lands.

More recently, environmental groups authored a platform of executive actions to address climate equity and environmental justice without new legislation, major new appropriations or other congressional authority. “We’re really hoping that this is Joe Biden’s FDR moment,” Sunrise Movement’s Desaraju says. “If you look at FDR’s New Deal, a lot of that was passed as executive action, not through Congress.”

Among environmentalists’ top priorities for executive action in Biden’s first 100 days is putting a stop to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines once and for all. Biden could also unilaterally end regulatory subsidies for the fossil fuel industry that are funneled through executive agencies, the Export-Import Bank and the U.S. International Development and Finance Corporation. Activists likewise hope to see the president-elect implement an environmental equity screen for federal projects as well as a climate justice screen for low-income communities of color who disproportionately bear the brunt of toxic pollution.

It’s not just about undoing Trump environmental rollbacks; it’s also about moving much stronger rules forward. To do that, Biden will need to “flood the zone,” as RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus and a Democratic National Committee delegate, puts it. “It means everything and anything. Let the Republicans play whack-a-mole. Let them try to rebuff all of the different things coming out, but it basically means that the team has to be prepared to hit the ground running,” Miller told Truthout.

But the Trump administration is working against the clock to slow the incoming administration’s momentum. Trump appointees at the EPA and Interior Department are locking in rules changes that will make it harder for Biden to undo many of the 104 environmental regulatory rollbacks enacted over the past four years, including asking oil and gas companies to choose where they want to drill in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Now, the incoming administration will have to take even more aggressive steps to overcome the Trump administration’s obstacles. The Revolving Door Project’s Hauser says there’s a real opportunity for progressives to makes their voices heard and understand that they have real influence when it comes to the transition process.

“[The transition team needs] to be hearing from people, because I can assure you that corporate America is making their preferences known in a very consistent manner to the transition,” Hauser says.