The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump taps climate skeptic for top White House environmental post

Surrounded by miners, President Trump signs an “energy independence” executive order at the Environmental Protection Agency in March. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

President Trump on Thursday tapped Kathleen Hartnett-White, a former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to head a key White House office that coordinates environmental and energy policies across the government.

The nomination of Hartnett-White to chair the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality is not entirely surprising — she previously had been considered to head the Environmental Protection Agency — but nevertheless is sure to infuriate environmental advocates.

Like other members of the Trump administration, she has long questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-fueled climate change and has criticized the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a volunteer group of climate scientists whose findings are considered the gold standard of climate science. And she has described efforts to combat global warming as little more than an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

“I am not at all persuaded by the IPCC science that we are standing on some precipice,” ­Hartnett-White told The Washington Post last October, referring to the urgency to combat global warming. “We’re not standing on a cliff from which we are about to fall off.”

New EPA document reveals sharply lower estimate of the cost of climate change

Hartnett-White is a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization whose board of directors includes oil industry executives and GOP activists. Koch Industries, an oil-based conglomerate that has funded a variety of libertarian political groups, was among the group’s broad range of original donors.

From her post at the foundation, Hartnett-White often has challenged the conclusions of international experts on climate change science, as well as criticized the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

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

Does the Trump administration believe in climate change? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

She has displayed similar contempt for international climate efforts, calling scientific conclusions from United Nations panels “not validated and politically corrupt.” Hartnett-White has also questioned the idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant at all, calling it “an odorless, invisible, beneficial, and natural gas.”

“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-authored 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.”

The Council on Environmental Quality or CEQ, formed in 1970, doesn’t just coordinate environmental policy at the White House. It plays a central role in the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires an assessment of the environmental impacts of many proposed federal actions before they are undertaken.

That’s where Hartnett-White could have a lot of influence in an administration that has called for speeding up infrastructure projects and cutting down on holdups due to environmental requirements.

“The new chair has wide latitude to weaken NEPA in an effort to speed oil and gas and other project approvals, which could undermine a key tool to understand and potentially mitigate environmental harms,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former CEQ staffer in the Obama administration.

But James Connaughton, who held the role for which Hartnett-White has been nominated in the George W. Bush administration, argued that at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the 2000s she presided over an impressive period in which economic growth and energy infrastructure expansion — particularly for wind energy and shale gas drilling — was nevertheless matched by continuing environmental protection.

“It’s a great track record of effective planning, effective decision-making, while still meeting and sustaining environmental requirements,” Connaughton said, calling Hartnett-White “highly qualified.”

Connaughton also argued that at CEQ, Hartnett-White could successfully streamline project approvals without undermining environmental protections. “The Clean Water Act is still there, Endangered Species Act is still there, all of those substantive laws are still on the books and NEPA helps organize the process of getting through all that,” he said.

Critics of Hartnett-White, however, have long seen her as far outside the mainstream, a denier of well-established science who would reflexively side with fossil fuel interests.

“Her ill-conceived policies would put the health of our families at risk and increase the deadly impact of climate change,” Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, wrote last fall.

Christy Goldfuss, vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress and a former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called Hartnett-White’s nomination a win for the industry interests.

“She advocates for the moral case for developing fossil fuels, which flies in the face of the responsibilities of the chair to engage the public on environmental issues and advise the president on how to protect the public from the greatest environmental threats,” Goldfuss said in a statement. “As communities rebuild across the country from climate fueled wildfires and hurricanes, her stated alliance with the fossil fuel industry makes her unfit to hold the highest environmental post in the government to advise the president on the real moral threat to our country: climate change.”

Even with the nomination of Hartnett-White, who must be confirmed by the Senate, the Trump administration has left empty dozens of key scientific posts throughout the government. The positions span high-level science advisory jobs in the White House, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Read more:

Trump’s energy policy team includes climate change skeptics, free-market advocates

Over 2,000 scientists urge Trump to respect ‘scientific integrity and independence’

Fancy dinners, far-flung speeches: Calendars detail EPA chief’s close ties to industry

For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.