White House to withdraw controversial nominee to head Council on Environmental Quality

Source: By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, February 5, 2018

Kathleen Hartnett White, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 28, 2016, in New York. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The White House will withdraw its controversial nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White, according to three administration officials briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced yet.

One of the officials briefed on Hartnett White’s plans said that her nomination had failed to gather momentum even as some of the administration’s other senior environmental policy picks had won approval, with some Senate Republicans raising questions about her expertise.

A White House official confirmed in an email Saturday evening that Hartnett White had withdrawn her nomination, but did not provide further comment. Hartnett White could not be reached for comment.

Hartnett White, who once headed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and now serves as a fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has stirred controversy because of her statements on climate change. Testifying in the fall before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she said that while humans probably contribute to current warming, “the extent to which, I think, is very uncertain.”

Her comments, which echoed some other appointees of President Trump, contradicts the conclusion of an overwhelming number of scientific experts and the findings of the federal government. Leading scientific assessments have repeatedly found that recent climate change is fueled largely by human greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’m not a scientist, but in my personal capacity, I have many questions that remain unanswered by current climate policy,” Hartnett White said at her confirmation hearing. “I think we indeed need to have more precise explanations of the human role and the natural role.”

Just days before she testified, the federal government released its Climate Science Special Report, a collaboration among more than a dozen agencies that found “no convincing alternative explanation” other than human influence for the warming the world has experienced in the past 70 years.

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the document stated.

When asked during her hearing by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) what portion of the heat trapped in Earth’s atmosphere is absorbed by the world’s oceans — the majority of it is stored there — Hartnett White responded, “I don’t have numbers like that.”

“But I believe that there are differences of opinions on that, that there’s not one right answer,” she added.

Whitehouse later tweeted that Harnett White “outright rejects basic science.”

Much of the mainstream scientific community agreed. In November, more than 300 scientists from around the country signed a letter urging the Senate to reject her confirmation. It cited her “dangerous” views about climate change, saying. “This is not a partisan issue; it is a matter of defending scientific integrity.” Confirming Harnett White, the group said, “would have serious consequences for people and the ecosystems of the only planet that can support us.”

The influence of the Council on Environmental Quality, established in 1970 under the Nixon administration, has waxed and waned depending on who occupies the Oval Office. It coordinates activities across agencies and typically holds more power under Democratic presidents. But it played an important role under President George W. Bush on issues ranging from ocean conservation to air quality, in part because its chair, James L. Connaughton, served for the entirety of Bush’s two terms.

On policy issues such as infrastructure, for example, the CEQ typically would convene representatives from a variety of agencies when formulating an overall administration approach. Trump has empowered the council to accelerate the construction of infrastructure projects in the United States through executive orders, and that work is being done at the staff level.

Before being nominated, Hartnett White criticized the 2007 Supreme Court decision finding that the federal government had the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

“I take issue with that,” she told The Post in an interview in the fall of 2016. “Carbon dioxide has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.”

In 2016, she described carbon dioxide — emissions of which rank as one of the primary ways human activity contributes to climate change — as a key asset to the planet. “Our flesh, blood and bones are built of carbon,” she wrote in 2016. “Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas of life on this planet, an essential nutrient for plant growth on which human life depends.”

She made similar arguments in a book she co-wrote in 2016, titled “Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy,” as well as in numerous essays questioning climate change, including one last year in which she called President Barack Obama’s efforts to slow global warming by reducing carbon emissions “deluded and illegitimate.”

Hartnett White’s nomination had expired at the end of last year, but Trump resubmitted her name to the Senate in January.

She is not the first Trump environmental nominee to fail to win confirmation. Michael Dourson, whose nomination to become the Environmental Protection Agency’s top chemical safety official drew widespread criticism, withdrew from consideration in December after it became clear that the Senate probably would not confirm him.

A longtime toxicologist who worked at the EPA from 1980 to 1994, Dourson was closely tied to the chemical industry through a nonprofit consulting group he founded shortly after leaving the agency. Over the years, it produced research for chemical companies that consistently found little or no human health risks from their products. Critics said Dourson had too many conflicts of interest to be considered for an Environmental Protection Agency post in which he might oversee reviews of chemicals produced by companies he once represented.

On Saturday, news of Hartnett White’s withdrawal triggered relief among some of her staunchest critics. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called her a “remarkable poor choice” for such a consequential environmental post.

“A while ago, I wrote that many Trump appointees to science-based positions could be considered to either have deep conflicts of interest, to be fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency they were to lead or totally unqualified. Hartnett-White was all three — a trifecta,” he said.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Saturday evening that it was “abundantly clear very early on that heading up the Council on Environmental Quality wasn’t the right job for Ms. White.”

Instead, he said, “Withdrawing Kathleen Hartnett White’s nomination is the right thing to do, and I believe it is past time for this administration to nominate a thoughtful environmental and public health champion to lead this critical office in the federal government.”