As part of Donald Trump’s effort to “drain the swamp” directly into his cabinet, a revolving door coal lobbyist is now poised to take a top position at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the second time in his career.
According to Axios, Trump is expected to appoint Jeff Holmstead to second-in-command at the EPA, where he will be in charge of overseeing the coal companies that he spent the last decade lobbying for.
As a partner at Bracewell LLP, a major K Street lobbying firm, Holmstead’s clients have been almost exclusively coal mining, utility and railroad companies since 2007. His mainstay clients include Southern Company, Duke Energy, Ameren, and Arch Coal.
Of the 18 total companies that hired Holmstead at Bracewell, 14 of them are coal interests. Those 14 companies paid Holmstead’s firm more than $23.5 million’s firm more than $23.5 million in the time they retained him according to federal lobbying disclosure forms compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s not even the kicker. This is the second time that Jeff Holmstead has swapped jobs from coal lobbyist to coal regulator.
Trump and Holmstead
After the 2016 election, Trump and billionaire investor Carol Ichan interviewed Jeff Holmstead for the top job at EPA. Scott Pruitt got that job, but Mr. Holmstead appears to have carved out a role as second in command.
As Public Citizen’s David Arkush reasons, this may be a gesture to the coal industry that they too have a top-level EPA executive to get on the phone, since Pruitt himself is more indebted to the oil industry for his political career.
The appointment is very similar to the deal Holmstead struck with the George W. Bush administration in 2001. By placing him into the number two position, Holmstead can resume his mild-mannered approach to sabotaging the EPA and leave the heat for Administrator Pruitt.
That Other Time Holmstead Ran the EPA Into the Ground
After lobbying for utilities at the DC law firm Latham and Watkins, Holmstead took a second-tier position in the George W. Bush EPA in 2001. He became Assistant Administrator in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation after a bumpy confirmation process through the US Senate.
The effect was disastrous. Led by Holmstead, President George W. Bush’s falsely titled “Clear Skies Initiative” served to replace a variety of EPA clean air programs with industry-crafted rules that wouldn’t get the job done, but would be nice and cheap for polluters.
Case in point: Jeff Holmstead sabotaged the EPA’s efforts to require mercury pollution control technology at each US coal plant. After similar rules were used to reduce mercury emissions from hospitals and medical facilities, experts widely agreed that this was the best method to stop coal plants from emitting mercury into the air, where it disperses and settles in local waterways. Once in the water, mercury can be transformed into its acutely toxic form methylmercury. Methylmercury is a problem for people who eat contaminated fish, especially children and pregnant women, as this video by the Colorado School of Public Health illustrates.
Rather than supporting communities poisoned by coal pollution, Jeff Holmstead created a bureaucratic train wreck that resulted in many years of regulatory delay for his former (and future) coal industry clients. Holmstead censored his scientists at EPA and dismantled a working group charged with finishing the rule to require coal plant operators to install mercury pollution control equipment.
After scrapping the EPA’s almost-final mercury rule, Holmstead initiated a new effort to regulate mercury emissions through an “cap and trade” scheme. This less effective proposal would have lowered average mercury emissions across the country, but would not require the best technology at each individual coal plant. In other words, companies could decide which communities to clean up, and which communities to abandon as de facto sacrifice zones, as long as they scored an average reduction of emissions.
It took eight full years to reinstate the EPA mercury rule, and only after the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled that Jeff Holmstead’s substitute cap-and-trade plan for mercury was illegal. The EPA finally got the rule back on track in 2011, at the time estimating it would prevent 4,200 to 11,000 premature deaths each year.
The big question is this: How many people prematurely died from mercury-related health problems during the eight years of delay Mr. Holmstead gifted to the coal industry? The figure has not been credibly estimated. The implications of Holmstead’s decisions appear dire.
Mercury pollution was only one of many privileges Holmstead extended for coal companies in the Bush EPA. The so-called Clear Skies Initiative covered several other aspects of industrial pollution, where Jeff went to bat for coal companies from his government desk. Holmstead’s actions were repeatedly contested by Senators and even the EPA’s own Inspector General, who caught him dropping enforcement against coal companies that were taken to court for polluting.
In 2005, Holmstead left the EPA, traveled the world for a year, and then became a coal lobbyist again. He joined Bracewell, formerly known as Bracewell & Giuliani, and registered as a lobbyist for most of the nation’s top coal mining and utility companies, like Duke Energy, Southern Company, and Arch Coal. Since then, Holmstead and his colleagues continued to help companies lobby against clean air, clean water and climate regulations, often through a front group run out of his office called the “Electric Reliability Coordinating Council,” whose members overlap with Holmstead’s coal utility clients.
I have confronted Jeff a few times over the years, challenging what I see as a profession of thin morality. The last time I met him, we literally got stuck in the elevator together. We debated the merits of his coal company shilling as he attempted to catch a cab in the 100-degree heat of Washington, DC:
The first time I met Jeff was brief. At an energy panel hosted by Politico in 2011, I interrupted Jeff on stage to remind the audience that this “former EPA official” they rely on for fancy quotes is first and foremost a veteran coal lobbyist whose decisions appear to put people’s lives second to the profit motive of his clients.
What now makes me nervous is that the antics of our current president make someone like Jeff look “moderate,” as several reporters in Washington, DC are now characterizing him.
Holmstead’s tone may be moderate, but his legacy is a textbook example of corporations capturing our government and turning it against us.
Jeff Holmstead is America’s Top Swamp Thing, hands down.