By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
A senior aide to Vice President Cheney is the leading contender to become a top official at the Energy Department, according to several current and former administration officials, a promotion that would put one of the administration's most ardent opponents of environmental regulation in charge of forming department policies on climate change.
F. Chase Hutto III has played a prominent behind-the-scenes role in shaping the administration's environmental policies for several years, the officials said, helping to rewrite rules affecting the air that Americans breathe and the waters that oil tankers traverse. In every instance, according to both his allies and opponents, he has challenged proposals that would place additional regulations on industry.
The move to elevate the domestic policy adviser to the post of assistant secretary for policy and international affairs signals the administration's determination to resist new environmental protections, environmentalists said.
The assistant secretary is the "primary advisor to the Secretary and the Department on energy and technology policy development," conducts overseas negotiations on energy issues such as climate change, performs environmental analyses, and "leads the Department's international energy initiatives," according to the agency's Web site.
Hutto did not respond to several requests for an interview. Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride would not comment on the matter, saying the office does not discuss pending nominations, but she confirmed that Hutto has helped shape administration policies on an array of issues, including proposed protections for endangered right whales and whether to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"There is an interagency review process," McBride said in an interview. White House aides are "expected to offer opinions and participate in policy debates. That's the way the process works."
Jason K. Burnett, an administration critic who served as the Environmental Protection Agency's deputy associate administrator until June, said of Hutto: "He always struck me as being naturally and philosophically opposed to regulation at the outset, and it took an enormous amount of discussion and analysis to convince him otherwise." He added: "I can't think of a case where Chase advocated more environmental or health protections."
Hutto, 39, a Michigan native and a veteran of several successful GOP campaigns, has spent almost his entire career working for Republicans in Washington. He started out as an opposition researcher working on Spencer Abraham's 1994 upset Senate victory and conducted similar research for two other Senate bids before serving on the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign as a vote-recount team leader in Duval County, Fla.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration and a law degree, both from the University of Michigan, Hutto worked briefly in the private sector at the firm Venable, Baetjer, Howard and Civiletti before joining Abraham's staff on the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration in October 1997. As a Senate staffer, Hutto focused on issues such as electronic commerce and privacy; he shifted his focus when Abraham took over the Energy Department in January 2001 and Hutto became a senior policy adviser there.
Burnett said Hutto, a vocal proponent of the free market, argued during interagency climate policy meetings that Americans are attached to their cars and would be loath to sacrifice them to achieve greenhouse gas reductions.
At the White House, Hutto has been one of the oil and gas industry's key points of contact for energy and environmental issues.
His policy portfolio has expanded over time, giving him significant influence over energy and environmental matters. He was detailed to the National Security Council as an energy adviser in October 2004 and moved to Cheney's office a year later as deputy assistant to the vice president for domestic policy.
"He's got an incredible amount of authority and a portfolio seemingly without end," said a source familiar with policy discussions involving Hutto. "He's got his fingers in everything."
Appointment as assistant secretary would be a promotion, however, and could enhance Hutto's stature if he wanted to return to the private sector after President Bush leaves office.
Juleanna R. Glover, a former Cheney aide who worked with Hutto on Abraham's first Senate bid, said that he had earned his considerable power through his energy expertise and his "deeply principled conservatism."
"He's one of the foremost energy experts in Washington," she said, adding that he was "one of the original foot soldiers in the '94 recapture of Congress" by Republicans.
In recent months, Hutto has helped scale back a rule proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect North Atlantic right whales -- one of the most endangered animals on the planet -- from lethal ship strikes. The rule NOAA submitted 1 1/2 years ago originally would have required ships within 30 nautical miles of several East Coast ports to slow to 10 knots or less during parts of the year when the whales are migrating.
Acting on Cheney's behalf, Hutto questioned whether there was sufficient scientific evidence to justify the economic costs that the rule would impose on shippers. The White House plans to issue a revised ship strike rule next month that will reduce the perimeter around the ports from 30 to 20 nautical miles and will "sunset" the rule after five years. New England Aquarium research scientist Amy Knowlton said those changes would "undermine the scientific integrity of the rule," since right whales have been spotted within 30 miles of the ports.
On other occasions, Hutto has questioned whether NOAA was responding too slowly to energy industry petitions. Shell Oil petitioned the agency last year for an "incidental harassment authorization" that would have allowed it to injure or kill a small number of marine mammals in connection with oil and gas drilling off Alaska in 2008; Hutto inquired about getting a quicker decision on Shell's request in light of the Arctic's limited drilling season.
Shell later withdrew its request.
An administration official, discussing internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity, said Hutto did not pressure NOAA to approve Shell's request. "Chase and others wanted a yes-or-no decision, understanding that the decision to deny or grant the permit is within an agency's discretion," the official said.
The conservative positions taken by Hutto and the vice president's office have held wide sway in internal policy debates, but occasionally he was stymied, participants said. Burnett said that this year Hutto opposed tightening federal rules for smog-forming ozone -- which is linked to thousands of premature deaths each year-- and in 2005 he questioned why the EPA needed to limit mercury emissions from power plants, because the agency had just issued a rule that would have the incidental effect of somewhat reducing the toxic pollutant. In both instances, the EPA strengthened the protections over these objections.
Sources both inside and outside the administration said it is unclear whether Bush will formally nominate Hutto for the Energy Department post or place him there in an acting capacity. Kathy Fredriksen, an acting assistant secretary, currently holds the job.
Francesca Grifo -- who directs the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group -- said that if Hutto takes the helm of the Energy Department's climate policy office, the impact could last well beyond Bush's term in office.
"It's not surprising that the Bush administration is considering a candidate who has a track record of putting politics ahead of science. Over and over again, appointments like this one have damaged the government's ability to protect the environment and public health," Grifo said, adding that in the coming months, Hutto could make policy decisions that the next administration would find difficult to reverse quickly.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.