New Candidates Emerge for Trump’s Top Environmental Adviser

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2018

New candidates to lead the Council on Environmental Quality have emerged after the withdrawal of Kathleen Hartnett White, who drew criticism for calling carbon dioxide the “gas of life.”Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The Trump administration is considering a North Carolina regulator who questions mainstream climate science to be the next White House environmental adviser, just weeks after withdrawing a previous nominee who held similar views.

Donald van der Vaart, the former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said in a telephone interview that he had been in discussions with the White House for several positions in recent months, most recently to possibly lead the Council on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for coordinating federal environmental policy.

In the interview, Mr. van der Vaart expressed skepticism about the extent to which humans have contributed to climate change, a view that puts him at odds with scientific findings and echoes the views of other senior administration officials. He also expressed a willingness to challenge the legal foundation of federal climate-change policy, the 2009 Environmental Protection Agency decision known as the “endangerment finding,” which declares that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health and must be regulated.

“I’m not going to say ‘no,’” Mr. van der Vaart said when asked if he would support repealing the endangerment finding.

Some activists who deny established climate-change science, like Myron Ebell at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, support Mr. van der Vaart’s potential nomination, saying he combines more than 25 years of regulatory experience with a unique background as both a lawyer and chemical engineer. In addition, Mr. Ebell said, Mr. van der Vaart’s climate views are closely aligned with those of the previous nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White, who was withdrawn from consideration this month.

“Having lost Kathleen, which saddens me, I think Donald van der Vaart is a good alternative. He brings many of the same strengths,” Mr. Ebell said. And, he noted, “He doesn’t have a long and open trail of speeches and comments,” like Ms. White does, in which opponents can look for ammunition.

Ms. White, a former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, came under fire from both parties for her environmental views. Democrats attacked her for suggesting that smog is not harmful and for calling carbon dioxide the “gas of life.” (Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change.) She also said that an E.P.A. standard that requires increasing the amount of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply should be repealed, angering Midwestern Republicans.

Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he found Ms. White’s views so unsettling that he mounted a campaign to block her confirmation. Mr. Carper said he visited the offices of 16 Republican senators to voice his concerns, bringing with him an iPad in order to play a three-minute video that his staff had compiled of Ms. White struggling to respond to questions posed by both Republicans and Democrats at her hearing.

In an interview last week, Mr. Carper said he believed his effort had played a part in ending Ms. White’s nomination. Several lawmakers, including Susan Collins of Maine and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, acknowledged through their press officers meeting with Mr. Carper but declined to comment on whether the effort swayed them.

John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and the chairman of the Senate environment panel, said in a statement that withdrawing Ms. White’s nomination from consideration “was her decision.”

Ms. White declined to discuss either her appearance before the committee or Mr. Carper’s video compilation. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, where Ms. White works as a senior fellow, also declined to comment, as did the White House.

The administration did not respond to a separate request to discuss the candidates now under consideration to lead the Council on Environmental Quality. The short list also includes Mary Neumayr, who as the agency’s chief of staff since March has been doing the job in an acting capacity for nearly a year, said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the firm Bracewell and a former E.P.A. air chief.

“She’s been a steady hand at C.E.Q. since she got there and everyone thinks she’s been doing a great job,” Mr. Holmstead said. But, he added, “I’m not sure that she wants the attention that comes with being the chair and having to run the gantlet of the confirmation process.”

Calls to the Council on Environmental Quality were not returned.

Ms. Neumayr’s views on topics like climate change are far less well known than Mr. van der Vaart’s.

Mr. van der Vaart said last week that while he believes human emissions contribute to climate change, “the accuracy of the modeling is such that on the one hand I’m not sure we know what the fraction of man-made climate change is.”

“It’s so important to know what that fraction is for us to develop a solution,” he said. “It’s no good spending a lot of money when it turns out that’s not going to help you. All I’m saying is, yes, we contribute. But I’m not prepared to say it’s the only factor.”

Late last year, 13 federal agencies found with high confidence that more than 92 percent of the observed rise in global average temperatures since 1950 is the direct result of human activity.

Mr. van der Vaart also offered support for another area that has invited criticism: the “red team-blue team” debates to critique climate science that Scott Pruitt, administrator of the E.P.A., told Congress recently he still intends to hold.

“It’s always a great idea to debate issues,” Mr. van der Vaart said. “The question is, how do you actually do it? Do you have one debate? Do you have 10 debates? It’s a very attractive notion, but I’d like to think and talk to a lot of people about how to best implement that.”

Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered eight international climate talks. @LFFriedman