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Donald Trump is handing the federal government over to fossil fuel interests

The appointments, the policies, the rhetoric — it is not subtle.

Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a presidential campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 10, 2016.
... with his tiny, tiny hands.
(Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

In September 2016, speaking to an audience of fossil fuel executives at a Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump promised, “Oh, you will like me so much.”

They didn’t give him much money during his campaign, presumably because, like most people, they were confident he wouldn’t win. But they made up for it quickly after the election. According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, “oil, gas and coal companies and executives contributed more than $1 out of every $10 raised for Trump’s inauguration, for which he raised nearly $107 million overall” (a new record).

The love affair between Trump and fossil fuel companies has blossomed ever since. Recently, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance, gushed to the New York Times, “not in our wildest dreams, never did we expect to get everything.”

Fossil fuels get everything

“Everything,” in this case, denotes a long list of friendly appointments and regulatory rollbacks. For all its controversies, distractions, failures, and unfilled jobs, the Trump administration has been steady and true in its devotion to fossil fuel interests, giving them a greater presence inside executive agencies, stripping them of regulatory restraints, and proposing to defund their competitors.

There are some areas of policy where Trump faces friction from courts, Congress, or other elements of the conservative coalition. He has stumbled on health care, on his travel ban, and on foreign policy. But when it comes to environmental and energy policy, the coalition is aligned. All the party’s most powerful and influential factions support a pro-fossil, anti-regulatory agenda; there is an extensive infrastructure of big money, think tanks, and lobbyists built to support it.

It’s worth noting that a pro-fossil fuel, anti-regulatory approach is not particularly popular in the US, in either party. Majorities in every congressional district support limiting local pollution and carbon emissions from coal plants. Majorities in every Congressional district believe America’s focus should turn toward wind and solar. Majorities in every state support the Paris climate agreement.

But the money and intensity on the GOP side support fossil fuels. And there is no faction on the right that cares enough about climate or environmental issues to prioritize them over the larger culture war. So there is no friction.

coal protest (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The relative lack of conflict makes the fossil fuel takeover quieter than other parts of the Trump reality show, but not for lack of activity. Trump has moved aggressively to make good on his promises.

In its first 100 days, the administration overturned, reversed, or suspended 23 environmental rules and regulations. Even the White House website has vanished any mention of climate change and replaced it with a paean to energy production.

It’s been a full-court press. In this post, I’m going to review a few of the highlights — some of the people with whom the administration is staffing its agencies, as well as a few of the rule and procedure changes it has already put in place. It is by no means comprehensive (and will likely soon be out of date), but it should offer some perspective on the sheer breadth of the administration’s work on behalf of fossil fuels.

Like so many areas of Trump policy, it is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s administration, only more shameless. It is too soon to say if Trump will be “worse than Bush” on this score, but it’s already clear that he feels less of a need to cover his decisions with a veneer of “balance.”

“Energy dominance”

To frame these efforts, a note on terminology.

For decades, “energy independence” has been the go-to cliché for policymakers. The idea is, by producing more of our own oil and gas and importing less “foreign oil,” we become more secure.

It’s daft. As long as we buy and sell oil on a global market, we are subject to the same swings in prices as everyone else, no matter how much we produce. Natural gas is a bit different, since the US has a production glut and limited ability to export, but that market is growing increasingly global as well.

None of this has deterred the Trump administration, which is taking energy independence up a notch. The new goal? “Energy dominance.”

This term apparently traces directly back to Trump, and is quintessentially Trumpian in both its vapidity and its boastful belligerence.

What does it mean? Let Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke explain: “There is a difference in energy independence, and there is a difference in energy dominance. We're in a position to be dominant. And if we, as a country, want to have national security, and an economy that we all desperately need, then dominance is what America needs.”

Right. It means nothing. It’s a bit of macho posturing, a diffident effort at justifying the pre-set policy, which is, as the Washington Post summarizes, “to promote as much oil, gas and coal development as possible.”

And that is what Trump has set about doing.

oil wells

The beachhead team

Let’s start at the beginning. Before most of Trump’s appointments came the “beachhead teams,” groups of Trump staffers who were sent out across the bureaucracy to do his bidding in the early stages of the transition. ProPublica has a list of 400 officials that Trump has “quietly installed ... to serve as his eyes and ears at every major federal agency.” There are Breitbart alt-righters and swampy lobbyists galore, “causing friction” at various agencies.

As a Washingtonian, I have to share this amusing anecdote:

Pruitt is bristling at the presence of former Washington state senator Don Benton, who ran the president’s Washington state campaign and is now the EPA’s senior White House adviser ... These officials said Benton piped up so frequently during policy discussions that he had been disinvited from many of them. One of the officials described the situation as akin to an episode of the HBO comedy series “Veep.”

Benton, who wasn’t exactly beloved in the Washington legislature either, has since been, ahem, reassigned.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law did some analysis of that beachhead group, focusing on “88 officials who were installed at environmental, energy, and natural resource management agencies.” The two main findings:

* More than half (50/88, 57%) of the appointees appear to lack expertise and/or experience that would be directly relevant to the core missions of the departments and agencies that they have joined. [At EPA, “2 of the 11 appointees had relevant experience in environmental protection or regulation.”]

* More than one quarter of the appointees have close ties to the fossil fuel industry (25/88, 28%).

Many of the beachhead representatives, among them numerous Trump campaign staffers, went on to full-time jobs at the agencies they were snooping on. Here are a few just from the Department of Interior:

  • Doug Domenech, now a White House senior advisor at DOI, previously ran the Fueling Freedom Project for the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, making the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”
  • Daniel Jorjani, now a special assistant to Zinke, “worked for both the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation and was general counsel for Freedom Partners, an advocacy group also funded by the Koch Brothers.” One of Freedom Partners’ primary goals is to expand fossil fuel production.
  • Lori Mashburn, formerly of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, is now DOI's White House liaison. Heritage, you’ll recall, is the source of a plan to gut the EPA that Trump is now attempting to implement through his budget.

The beachhead groups were part of a larger constellation of advisers, including Oklahoma oil and gas mogul Harold Hamm (once considered for energy secretary), billionaire investor Carl Icahn (last seen shadily pushing for policy that would benefit his oil refineries), GOP energy lobbyist Mike McKenna (in charge of the DOE transition team), longtime climate skeptic (and hopeless dope) Myron Ebell, North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer (the oil devotee who supposedly wrote Trump’s big energy speech last May), and Thomas J. Pyle, the director of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), a pro-fossil fuel “think tank” which, as we shall see, has provided several Trump staffers.

(Some of these “advisers” have since returned to their day jobs.)

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Department of Interior

To run the Department of Interior, Trump chose Ryan Zinke, a Montana Congress member who has long opposed environmental regulations and championed fossil fuels, pushing for more and faster leasing of public land for mining and drilling. Zinke’s congressional campaigns have taken $352,136 from the oil and gas industry.

As DOI deputy secretary, Zinke chose Dave Bernhardt, a lobbyist who was, ThinkProgress reports, “a senior political official and the top lawyer in charge of ethics and legal compliance for President George W. Bush’s Interior Department during a period plagued by scandal and ethical violations.” (If you’re not familiar with that scandal, it is a hall-of-famer. This is from an Inspector General’s report: “Employees frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and natural gas company representatives.”)

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Bernhardt has also lobbied the federal government on behalf of a number of fossil fuel energy and mining companies. His nomination was recently sent to the Senate floor on a party-line vote by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, after a hearing in which Bernhardt conspicuously refused to commit to any steps to reduce conflicts of interest.

To run DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, one of two agencies that regulates offshore drilling, Zinke chose Scott Angelle, a member of the Louisiana Public Service Commission who served on the board of directors of (and was paid $989,238 by) oil pipeline operator Sunoco Logistics.

The Western Values Project has been looking into DOI staff and appointees. Director Chris Saeger told me that, out of 10 so far, only three do not have direct ties to fossil fuel companies.

One of the administration’s first acts at DOI was to instruct the Bureau of Land Management (and other agencies) to review their rules and policies seeking any “burdens” on domestic fossil fuel development. That includes anything that “could obstruct, delay, curtail, or otherwise impose significant costs” on fossil fuel projects, i.e., virtually every rule on the books.

Zinke will report to Trump on those “burdens,” and make recommendations for how to overcome them, by July 26. DOI is not required to get public input, but Zinke has vigorously solicited the industry’s, according to Greenwire:

In his first two months on the job, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had more meetings with oil and gas industry executives than representatives of any other type of interest group.

Zinke also abandoned the review of federal coal-leasing policy that had begun under Obama, and lifted the moratorium on leasing. The program will now proceed on terms that the agency itself (under Obama) deemed unfair to taxpayers.

Following requests from industry, the administration has suspended a new rule from the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) that would have reassessed the value of (and royalties owed on) coal, oil, and natural gas on public land, for the first time since the 1980s in some cases. (The suspension will be challenged in court.)

And the administration plans to withdraw an Obama rule on fracking on public lands, which would have imposed “stricter design standards for wells and for holding tanks and ponds where liquid wastes are stored.”

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Environmental Protection Agency

To run the EPA, Trump chose Scott Pruitt, a climate denier, longtime supporter of fossil fuels, and stalwart foe of EPA regulations. According to emails obtained by the New York Times, back when he was attorney general for Oklahoma, Pruitt “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations.”

At EPA, Scott Pruitt has been packing his staff with climate skeptics drawn from the staff of the King Climate Skeptic, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).

A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.

As head of EPA’s Office of Policy, Pruitt chose Samantha Dravis, formerly of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and its affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund, both of which Pruitt has previously chaired. She has said the Clean Power Plan is unlawful, that it will raise costs and destroy jobs, and that Obama is “trying to limit the ability of states being energy independent by restructuring the entire energy grid to favor renewable energy sources that the president and his allies prefer.”

To help run EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance — responsible for enforcement of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act — Pruitt chose Patrick Traylor, a longtime lawyer who has worked helping such clients as “Koch Industries, Dominion Energy and TransCanada, responsible for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline” avoid and rebuff environmental enforcement lawsuits.

As a deputy associate administrator in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, Pruitt chose a lobbyist who was once president of the Ohio Coal Association.

Then there is (another ex-Inhofe aide) Mandy Gunasekara:

In office, Pruitt immediately set about providing fossil fuels the “relief” he promised them. He canceled a rule on reporting methane emissions, ordered review and “elimination” of new wetlands protections under the Clean Water Act, reopened a review of fuel economy standards, ordered a reevaluation of the Clean Power Plan (which he now says he may not replace at all), and rolled back limits on power plant pollution of waterways. And that was just the first 100 days.

This month, “administration officials began acting to reconfigure several [federal science] boards to make them friendlier to industry.” As part of that effort, EPA dismissed nine of the 18 members of its scientific review board, which reviews regulations to make sure they accord with the latest science.

Though they had served only one year of their customary three-year term, those members will be replaced with, according to an agency spokesperson, “people ... who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.” (If you get his meaning.)

Shortly thereafter, two more members of the board resigned in protest.

There’s not much Democrats can do about it but write a sternly worded letter, so that’s what Senate Dems did, expressing concern over “a chilling effect on the Board and on the larger scientific community.”

Speaking of science, back in March, the website of EPA’s Office of Science and Technology changed its mission statement from developing “science-based” standards to developing “economically and technologically achievable standards.” [scratching-chin emoji]

Meanwhile, political leadership at EPA has begun “occasionally inserting new data and other information into public statements without final review from career policy specialists,” data and information officials inside EPA describe as “misleading and incompatible with extensive agency research.”

And according to staffers inside the agency, climate change work has “ground to a halt.”

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Department of Energy

To run the Department of Energy, Trump chose former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who took the job “believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.” (Perry later found out that DOE does other stuff.)

Perry remains the only nominated position at DOE that has been filled. Out of 22, that’s one filled and two nominated.

As DOE chief of staff, Perry chose Brian McCormack, who previously worked for the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group, that fights state-level solar rooftop policies.

To run DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Trump chose Daniel Simmons, a staunch foe of renewable energy. Simmons previously worked with the Institute for Energy Research and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a right-wing group that lobbies against progressive policy at the state level). DOE has now tasked Simmons with running “a task force for cutting regulations.”

As one of his first acts in office, Perry ordered a review of electricity grid policies that are harming baseload (read: coal and nuclear) generation. As I described at length here, that review is a scarcely concealed bid to prop up the flagging coal industry. To run it, Perry chose Travis Fisher, a former FERC economist who has spent the past several years railing against renewable energy at IER. (In a report for IER, he called federal renewable energy policies the "single greatest emerging threat" to the grid.)

Before Perry was even confirmed, Trump suspended four DOE energy efficiency regulations finalized under Obama (which, due to a bureaucratic delay, have not yet been sent to the Office of the Federal Register, the final step before implementation). Perry extended the delays into the fall; state attorneys general and environmental groups have said they will sue if the rules aren’t finalized by the end of June.

At the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), more than a dozen research projects have had their funding held up, for reasons no one has explained (ARPA-E project managers are under gag order), disrupting both ongoing and planned research. Some 60 House Democrats wrote Perry a letter about it, warning that “inhibiting the flow of funds or interfering with the execution of appropriations in the manner directed by Congress is unlawful.” (DOE has since released funding for a handful of the projects.)

And the cherry on top: DOE has removed the words “clean energy” from several of its technology web pages. The "Clean Energy Investment Center,” for instance, is now just the "Energy Investor Center.” Don’t want to give people the wrong idea.

Industry connections in other departments

Here are a few (again, by no means comprehensive) highlights from other agencies.

To run the State Department, of course, Trump chose the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company.

As special assistant to the president for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy at the National Economic Council, Trump chose Michael Catanzaro, a fossil fuel lobbyist.

A top contender to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is Kathleen Hartnett White, “who says carbon emissions are harmless and should not be regulated.” She came to Trump from the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Also headed to CEQ, as an associate director for infrastructure, is Alex Herrgott, who spearheaded Inhofe’s efforts to boost the construction of pipelines.

To join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is responsible for permitting oil and gas pipelines, monitoring environmental compliance in the natural gas industry, and overseeing wholesale energy markets, Trump nominated:

  • Neil Chatterjee, a policy adviser to Mitch McConnell on energy and environmental issues who led the push for Keystone XL, worked to undermine the Paris climate accord, and “led Sen. McConnell’s campaign to convince states to ‘just say no’ to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan,” according to the New York Times.
  • Rob Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania PUC, one-time president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners [NARUC] and a vocal natural gas enthusiast. His claim to fame is once accusing anti-pipeline protestors of being on a “jihad.”

(Both were recently voted through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; their nominations will now go to the Senate floor.)

As head of the USDA’s Research, Education and Economics agency, which coordinates its scientific research, Trump chose Sam Clovis, a former radio host and climate denier with no scientific background.

Even Trump’s new FBI director, Christopher Wray, worked for a law firm that defended fossil fuel companies in climate litigation and was lead speaker at an event advising those companies how to counter investigations by attorneys general. (The FBI will be directly involved in an attorneys general lawsuit against Exxon.)

A coal barge travels up the Kanawha River, passing the Dupont chemical plant.
Well, that’s one vision of the future.
(Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The budget

In case these appointments and regulatory rollbacks left any doubts about Trump’s intent to prioritize fossil fuels over environmental protection, Trump’s budget proposals erased them.

Trump’s first budget proposal was, predictably, rejected by Congress, which preserved most funding for EPA and renewable energy programs. But that temporary budget expires in September, so it’s time for another round.

Trump’s second is every bit the equal of the first in its slapdash nihilism — and every bit as unlikely to become law. It is more a statement of intent. And what intent! It would lay waste to environmental protection and enforcement in the US. (The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer has a great rundown).

DOI would be cut by 12 percent overall, though programs to develop oil, gas, and coal on public lands would see a large infusion of funding, as would BLM’s program for approving oil and gas leasing proposals. A DOI science program devoted to climate adaptation research would have its budget cut by a third. Big cuts would hit a range of land, water, and wildlife management programs.

The budget would reduce EPA’s overall funding by almost a third and slash its workforce by 20 percent. It would slash EPA’s federal enforcement office by 40 percent (and state enforcement grants by 45 percent), the Office of Science and Technology by 50 percent, the Office of Research and Development by half, and Superfund cleanups by 25 percent.

Perhaps most tellingly, the budget would eliminate EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, a relatively inexpensive ($8 million) program that tracks carbon emissions from the nation’s 8,000 largest industrial polluters.

DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration budget would be boosted by 11 percent, which would be offset by sweeping cuts in virtually every advanced-energy program, including “DOE's Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).”

Yes, ARPA-E, the DOE program Obama set up to research advanced energy, would be closed out entirely. The budget would also cut advanced nuclear energy research and research into carbon capture and sequestration. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by more than half.

USDA and NOAA would both see cuts targeted specifically at climate research and mitigation.

The budget would eliminate funding for NOAA's Arctic research program, which is designed to improve sea ice modeling and prediction. Another cut targets a program to "harmonize" weather and climate models to better predict weather changes happening 16 to 30 days in the future. [Former NOAA administrator Jane] Lubchenco called the cut "totally inexplicable."

Those are just a few of the sweeping cuts in science and research programs across government.

And finally, the budget would decimate international climate programs. USAID’s Global Climate Change Initiative would be eliminated, as would any US funding for the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps fund adaptation efforts in the countries hardest hit by climate change.

The moral of the story

BP contributed $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration and spent $1.7 million in the first three months of the year lobbying on “issues related to arctic oil and gas development.”

Now Trump has signed an executive order expanding offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, personally contributed $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration. In the first three months of the year, his company spent $270,00 lobbying on “pipeline related issues.”

Upon taking office, Trump told the Army Corps of Engineers to abandon its review of the pipeline. Shortly thereafter, the key easement was granted and construction resumed.

And so on. The common thread in all these decisions and appointments — and many others, like scrapping the use of a “social cost of carbon” in federal decision making — is fairly clear.

Trump has been erratic and unpredictable in many ways, but when it comes to fossil fuels, there is no wavering. The administration has moved with remarkable speed and consistency to prosecute the industry’s interests — stocking government agencies with industry-friendly staff, removing regulatory constraints, and hacking away at support for competitors — without any resistance from Congress or its base.

The Washington Post calls the takeover of the federal government by fossil fuel interests a “breathtaking power grab.” But they didn’t have to grab anything. They barely had to lift a finger. Trump and the GOP are already united in doing their bidding.

Did I miss anything? If you’re aware of other fossil fuel-connected appointments or policies, let me know at

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