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White House pulls nominee for Interior’s No. 2 post after opposition from centrists

Biden administration withdraws lawyer Elizabeth Klein’s name from consideration after Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) raised objections.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), seen March 11. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The White House is withdrawing its nominee for deputy secretary of the Interior Department two months after touting Elizabeth Klein as one of several women President Biden had selected for top department posts, a concession to centrist senators unhappy about her advocacy to curb fossil fuels.

The move, which came after Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) raised objections, shows the challenge the Biden administration faces in advancing its environmental agenda in a closely divided Congress. Four individuals briefed on the matter discussed it on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.

Both Manchin and Murkowski represent states that are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry — coal in West Virginia and oil in Alaska — and they have emerged as pivotal votes in Congress on issues related to energy and climate change. The Interior Department represents a central battleground in climate policy, as nearly a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from oil and gas drilled on public lands it controls.

The department declined to comment on the move, which was first reported by Politico. The decision to sideline Klein was made before Murkowski and three other Republican senators voted to confirm Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, an outspoken liberal, last week.

Biden’s transition team had flagged Klein early on, identifying her as its pick for Interior’s No. 2 position before Biden was inaugurated, and had been preparing her for interviews with senators.

Klein, who worked at Interior during both the Clinton and Obama administrations, helped challenge several Trump administration environmental rules as deputy director of New York University School of Law’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. She also worked at the D.C. office of the firm Latham & Watkins.

Asked about the apparent reversal, a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter said, “Liz Klein’s nomination was never formally submitted to the United States and will not be nominated to this position.”

White House officials are now eyeing Tommy Beaudreau, a partner at Latham & Watkins, according to several individuals familiar with the nominations process. Beaudreau, who joined Interior in June 2010 to help handle the BP oil spill, headed the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and served as Interior chief of staff during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Neither Klein nor Beaudreau could be reached for comment Tuesday.

One person familiar with Klein’s nomination said that opponents — including Murkowski and Manchin — felt that Haaland and Klein would be a difficult team for the oil and gas industry to work with, as both have prioritized fighting climate change. The person added that the sprawling and complicated Interior Department would also benefit from a deputy secretary with more management experience.

The senators were more inclined to approve Beaudreau, according to this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “There was pretty universally a feeling that whether you agreed with him or not on an issue or whether you were winning your argument or not, he was thoughtful,” the person said. “He listened to what you had to say, would work with you, and all sides got a fair shake.”

Tracking environmental actions under Biden

Murkowski has emerged as a critical vote for the administration on a range of policy and personnel issues. While her support for oil and gas drilling and other types of land development often puts her at odds with Biden’s agenda, she’s more willing to cross party lines than many of her colleagues, especially on the question of nominations.

Beaudreau, who moved with his family to Alaska in 1979 when his father got a job working on the North Slope, worked extensively on Alaska issues during Obama’s second term. Obama’s Interior Department frequently sparred with the Alaska congressional delegation, on matters such as whether to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and what sort of drilling could take place on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said he considered Klein an “exceptional pick” and did not like to see her nomination “torpedoed” by senators from fossil fuel states.

But he added that Beaudreau “got an enormous amount done for wild Alaska” when he served at Interior.

“Time and time again he proved himself to be an exceptional conservationist: seasoned, experienced, competent, ran a strong process, listened to all players,” Kolton said, adding that if Klein’s opponents think that Beaudreau will be better for them, “they may have buyer’s remorse.”

“Because Tommy Beaudreau is a strong conservationist and someone who fully understands the climate and biodiversity challenges we’re facing and the kind of actions that need to be taken,” he said.

Asked about Beaudreau’s possible nomination, a White House official said, “I don’t have any additional personnel announcements at the moment, but we are eager to announce additional appointments within the Department of Interior and look forward to doing so in the weeks ahead.”

Even without a confirmed No. 2, however, Interior is advancing Biden’s goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions and scrutinize any new development on public lands and waters. On Friday, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post, the department issued guidance that requires officials to clear any new major decisions, such as lease sales and land management plans with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Land and Mineral Management.

Asked about the matter, an Interior official said the policy was consistent with how past administrations have handled similar issues.