President Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the Council on Environmental Quality.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA)

Nomination of climate skeptic to head White House environmental office draws strong reactions

Originally published by E&E News

President Trump's nomination of a former Texas regulator who's touted the benefits of carbon dioxide to lead the Council on Environmental Quality is being praised by industry but derided by environmentalists as "creative evil" and a "nightmare scenario."

If confirmed by the Senate, Kathleen Hartnett White would lead a short-handed White House office that's traditionally been seen as an environmental watchdog on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"She will more aggressively go after dismantling all environmental laws — that's the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, that's the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act," said Christy Goldfuss, who led CEQ in the Obama administration. "It's creative evil, is what someone told me today."

Of particular concern to environmentalists is Hartnett White's assertion that climate change is not a danger to society and that recent hurricanes, raging wildfires and droughts are not a sign of increasingly severe weather, as well as her advocacy around the use of fossil fuels as a "moral case."

But former Trump transition officials and lobbyists defend Hartnett White as a veteran regulator and fault her critics for ignoring her record.

"Some have focused on particular statements attributed to Dr. White regarding climate science," said Scott Segal, a partner at Texas-based Bracewell LLP. "The truth is that she has written on a broader spectrum of environmental issues and has typically supported policies that advance energy, environmental and economic priorities."

Both sides agree Hartnett White will likely secure Senate approval and bring big changes to CEQ and national environmental policy.

Cynthia Taub with the law firm Steptoe & Johnson said the nomination is a "game changer" for CEQ. While past administrations used the office to issue guidance and ensure agencies were implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, she said, the Trump administration is focused on streamlining reviews.

"It seems Trump has a very different role in mind, and CEQ is being lined up as a streamlining agency to make sure permitting is happening more quickly," she said. "Maybe the idea is that CEQ will be pushing agencies to get things done quicker and not get bogged down in broader NEPA reviews."

Goldfuss and three other former CEQ leaders under Obama sent a letter to the Trump administration arguing the office appears to be "inappropriately" focused on fast-tracking environmental reviews and infrastructure while sidetracking environmental protection.

Of particular concern, she said, is Hartnett White's possible oversight of environmental laws as a Republican Congress presses an infrastructure package.

All of this is happening, Goldfuss said, as CEQ staffing is depleted and agencies are moving to limit the time and length of environmental reviews. According to the White House, CEQ currently has 29 employees, and Goldfuss said the agency had upward of 60 staffers under Obama.

"Republicans will use the fuzzy math around deregulation to say it will pay for building bridges and roads and by deregulation," Goldfuss said. "This will be the changes they want to make to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, NEPA. The assault here is real."

CEQ last month published a notice declaring an intent to speed up environmental reviews for infrastructure projects (E&E News PM, Sept. 14).

But Segal applauded CEQ's recent focus on infrastructure and said Hartnett White "joins a team already undertaking a serious-minded and capable review of the federal government's role in energy and environmental projects."

"Reforming NEPA is essential to getting the economy back to 3 percent annual growth," said Myron Ebell at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Kathleen brings the skills, experience and determination necessary to accomplish significant NEPA reform. She will also be useful to the administration on reforming the ESA and wetlands permitting."

Tom Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, said Harnett White's views are consistent with the Trump administration's of "resetting" environmental priorities and focusing on infrastructure.

"We look forward to working with her to improve the environment and the economy while repairing the broken relationship between the federal government, the states and stakeholders at the same time," Pyle said.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net