Inhofe staff hire triggers climate debate

The decision by Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, to acquire a new deputy chief of staff has touched off a hot inside-the-Beltway debate: Did Capitol Hill’s most prominent climate skeptic hire a moderate?

Next month, lobbyist George “Dave” Banks, who served as a senior adviser on international affairs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2006 to 2009, will become the panel’s minority deputy chief of staff, overseeing environmental issues. But the fact that he has established a good working relationship with some Democrats and environmentalists on global climate issues has prompted speculation that Inhofe may be shifting his stance.

Banks won the Climate Protection Award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 for his work on strengthening ozone layer protections under the Montreal Protocol. Politico noted that at the time of the award, the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development issued a release saying Banks was “the only Bush political appointee to have ever received such an award.”

But the truth might be a little more complicated. There’s no doubt that Banks’s predecessor on the panel, Mike Catanzaro, was a vocal conservative: He just took a post as an energy adviser to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). But Banks — who has most recently worked as a lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, Constellation Energy and First Energy — has shown no indication that he would back mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

Inhofe is clear about what he expects from Banks, issuing a statement Thursday saying: “Dave was constrained in his previous positions because of his professional obligations to the Bush administration during their moments of weakness. Yet Dave has personally opposed any type of congressional or regulatory cap-and-trade. He is now unleashed to join me in stopping the Obama administration from imposing all of their anti-business regulations.”

And Banks’s statement is even more telling: “I am honored to join Senator Inhofe’s staff. He has been a champion in defending the American economy against EPA overreach and environmental activism and I will now be freed to join the fight to end the insanity perpetrated by the Obama administration.”

John Coequyt, who directs the Sierra Club’s international climate program, has praised Banks in the past but provided a different take in an interview Thursday: “We clearly maintain an open mind with Dave because we know him, but it certainly changes your view, with him going to work for Inhofe. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to work with him in this new position.”

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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