For much of 2018, a chorus of Democrats and their environmentalist allies pressed President Trump to fire two of his top deputies on energy and environmental policy amid a flurry of ethics investigations.
With the year almost over, they finally succeeded. But the left-leaning critics may end up regretting their departure.
A pair of bureaucrats with decades of experience both on Capitol Hill and K Street have replaced Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt as the top officials at the Department of the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, respectively.
Gone from both departments are leaders who garnered headlines for striking a land deal with an oil executive or renting a condominium from the family of a D.C. lobbyist — instead of more banal policy initiatives. The rise of the two policy wonks, Trump's supporters hope and his critics fears, may make their agencies more effective at cutting back on environmental restrictions and promoting energy development.
"We may rue the day that we lost these giants of malfeasance and replaced them with much more low-key technocrats," said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University.
With Zinke's resignation over the weekend, the department's No. 2 official, David Bernhardt, sits atop a department that controls over 500 million acres of public land, at least for now. Among the names being floated to permanently fill Zinke's shoes are Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Bernhardt himself.
In a private resignation letter submitted to the White House on Saturday, the interior secretary blamed his departure on “vicious and politically motivated attacks." Zinke came under at least 15 investigations during his time in office, with perhaps the most serious inquiry into a real-estate deal he struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont.
Bernhardt's elevation at Interior, at least until Trump names a more permanent replacement, mirrors the rise of Andrew Wheeler at the EPA. Pruitt's onetime right-hand man is now both the agency's acting administrator and Trump's nominee to take on the job for the long term.
Before joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt worked for a decade as a lobbyist at Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck for many of the sort of organizations Interior regulates, such as oil service companies and western water districts.
Similarly, Wheeler spent nearly a decade representing coal and nuclear energy companies at the law and lobby shop Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting. The chief executive of one of Wheeler's former clients, Robert Murray of coal-mining giant Murray Energy, vocally supported Donald Trump's candidacy for president and later aggressively pushed his administration to rescue struggling power plants that purchase his coal.
Each came to be lobbyists after considerable experience in Republican governance on energy and environmental issues. Bernhardt once served as Interior's solicitor under George W. Bush while Wheeler worked as chief counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under its former chairman Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the upper chamber's most vocal critics of the consensus among climate scientists that humans are warming the planet.
"I think the DOI and EPA situations are quite parallel," said Amanda Leiter, the former deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals at Interior under President Obama who now teaches at the American University Washington College of Law. "Wheeler and Bernhardt are consummate bureaucrats, and in my view each was the brains behind his respective boss."
Wheeler took over the EPA when Pruitt stepped down from the role in July after a series of ethics and management scandals involving frequently booking first-class flights for government business and renting an apartment from the wife of a D.C. lobbyist at a below-market rate.
Since taking over as acting administrator, Wheeler has been more accessible to reporters. And he has closed one legal loophole for manufacturers of diesel freight trucks that Pruitt sought to leave open.
But little else has changed at the EPA, policy-wise. Wheeler has pursued the same goals that could end up bolstering the coal business, with less of the baggage from probes into potential conflicts of interest.
EPA has announced plans to rewrite federal rulemaking in a way that could make it easier to allow the release of mercury into the air and to reverse requirements compelling new coal plants to install technology meant to capture carbon dioxide. Trump endorsed that work by nominating Wheeler in November to take on the job for the long term.
Bernhardt, meanwhile, is regarded as one of the main architects of the Trump administration's agenda on endangered species and water management. He is known reputed among former colleagues for a work ethic that drove him to go into the office even after getting into a nasty car accident that left him visibly bruised.
"He's a very hard worker who really dives down into the details of what he's working on to ensure that he has a thorough understanding of all the issues," said Ann Navaro, a natural resources lawyer in Washington who once worked with Bernhardt at Interior. "It's a tremendous advantage to have someone with that level of expertise running the department."
Environmental groups that fiercely criticized Zinke do not foresee much change in public-lands policy with his departure. “Regardless of the front man President Trump puts into the secretary’s seat, industry ties still run deep at Interior," said Chase Huntley, senior director for the energy and climate program at the Wilderness Society.
But Light, the NYU professor, suggested the two may serve the Trump agenda well by being able to stay out of the spotlight.
"I would not discount them," he said. "You can do a lot of damage with a little bit of expertise."
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— More on Zinke: Even as he heads for the door, Zinke may still be investigated by the Trump administration and the incoming House Democratic majority for allegations of ethical violations. “Interior’s in-house watchdog said Monday that it will keep pursuing the multiple investigations it has open into Zinke,” Politico reports, adding the Justice Department would not comment on whether it is pursuing its own investigation into Zinke’s involvement in a Montana land deal backed by the chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton.
“On top of those investigations, Zinke and his successor will still have to face House Democrats who are eager to scrutinize the Trump administration’s policies of opening lands for drilling and mining while shrinking the size of protected federal monuments in the West.”
— “Zinke won’t be missed”: The Post’s editorial board writes Zinke and his “clumsy arrogance” are “leaving under an ethical cloud.” “No one who values America’s outdoor heritage will regret his departure,” the board writes, enumerating the outgoing Interior secretary’s actions to “fast track drilling on public lands and withdraw Obama-era climate rules.” “In the Trump era, there is always concern that the next appointment will be worse. It would have to be execrable to create any nostalgia for the Zinke era.”
CLIMATE CONFERENCE IN POLAND WRAPS UP:
— After days of negotiations and a last-minute deadline postponement, a deal was struck last weekend to forge a path forward with plans to curb carbon emissions, adding “legal flesh to the bones of the 2015 Paris agreement,” The Post’s Brady Dennis, Griff Witte and Chris Mooney reported. The post-Paris rules were set “for nearly 200 countries to cut their production of greenhouse gases and monitor one another’s progress.”
However, the deal reached after the two week-global conference does not bind countries to set targets. “Approval of the agreement prompted a standing ovation from the delegates. But even as they cheered, the outcome raised immediate questions about whether the steps taken in Katowice were big enough as global emissions continue to rise.”
These talks weren't built for “unprecedented” action: There was a deep sense of disappointment emanating from some countries' officials at the summit. “The world’s best efforts, some participants concluded after two weeks of nonstop talks, would not nearly match the urgency of a problem that scientists have said will bring catastrophic consequences without major action over the next 12 years,” Witte and Dennis write.
“Despite the disappointment, some who push for more ambition in the fight against climate change said they were willing to treat Friday’s apparent outcome as a qualified success. The planned withdrawal of the world’s largest economy — the United States — hadn’t stopped the process. Negotiations were yielding results. Countries were finding common ground.”
— Poll finds support for a "Green New Deal": The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found a majority of people in both major political parties support a "Green New Deal," even though many people have not heard of it by name. “Eighty-two percent of Americans say they have heard ‘nothing at all’ about the sweeping proposal to generate 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean sources within the next 10 years, upgrade the United States’ power grid, invest in energy-efficiency and renewable technology, and provide training for jobs in the new, green economy,” HuffPost reports. But when asked if they support or oppose those policies, 81 percent of registered voters say they “somewhat support” or “strongly support” such a plan, with 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents and 64 percent of Republicans supporting such goals.
What the poll really shows: That so far, the idea of a "Green New Deal," which broke into the political consciousness in Washington after Democrats took back the House, is an effective political slogan. But as voters learn the details of the proposal, public opinion may codify along partisan lines.
— Alexander out: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced he will not be seeking reelection in 2020, The Post’s John Wagner and Sean Sullivan report. The move is “likely to bring a close to a long political career characterized by his ability to seek consensus and work with politicians from both parties," they write.
As chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Alexander was an advocate of nuclear power and a skeptic of the potential of wind energy. Perhaps most notably, he helped create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-A, an agency that is tasked with funding breakthroughs in energy technology and that is today praised on both sides of the aisle.
— "My party has abandoned the conservative principles": A Republican Trump voter and educator for the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Tex. writes in The Post that while he supports enforcing immigration laws, he’s worried about how Trump’s border wall will affect the center. “We dread the destruction that will come when the bulldozers arrive, which could be as early as February. That loud, heavy machinery will cause irreparable damage to the habitat we’ve worked so hard to restore,” Luciano Guerra writes. He adds that by backing the planned wall, “my party has abandoned the conservative principles I treasure: less government, less spending, and respect for the law and private property.”
Within the Trump administration, government biologists and wildlife managers had warned internally against the barrier in southern Texas, suggesting that it could harm the habitats of imperiled species in the region.
— A punishment that fits the crime: Over nearly a decade, the Berry family and associates illegally killed hundreds of deer in the fields and forests of southern Missouri. As punishment, one of the poachers, David Berry Jr. has been sentenced to watch the Disney movie “Bambi” at least once a month during his year in the Lawrence County Jail, The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports.
— Polar vortex could unleash winter wallop by January: "Winter got off to a fast start in the Lower 48 even before it was technically winter," writes The Post's Jason Samenow. "Conditions have since eased some, but the heart of winter lies ahead. Will cold and snowy conditions return and turn more harsh? The polar vortex, the roaring river of air winding around the North Pole, holds the cards." Both American and European forecasters are predicting a disruption in the polar vortex sometime this month or next. Some climate scientists think the likelihood of such events will increase in coming years as the extent of Arctic sea ice shrinks.
— Oil giant backs carbon tax: ConocoPhillips has committed $2 million over two years to help fund a campaign by political advocacy group Americans for Carbon Dividends to push for a carbon emissions tax, Axios reports. “The move aligns the world’s largest independent oil and gas producer with ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest publicly traded oil company, which recently contributed $1 million,” per the report. “Given the industry’s deep-pocketed influence with Republicans, this backing increases the odds Congress could eventually back the controversial policy.”
The flip side of the Americans for Carbon Dividends proposal, if enacted, would roll back a number of existing pollution rules and protect oil companies like ConocoPhillips from lawsuits attempting to hold them accountable for climate change.
— Electric future in California: Starting in 2029, mass transit agencies in California will have to buy fully electric buses, the first state to have such a mandate. “The agency, the California Air Resources Board, said it expected that municipal bus fleets would be fully electric by 2040,” the New York Times reports. “It estimated that the rule would cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases by 19 million metric tons from 2020 to 2050, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.”
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a public scoping meeting for the Gulf LNG Liquefaction Project in Moss Point, Miss.
— Parting gift: Ryan Zinke was spotted by reporters walking out of his last White House meeting as interior secretary with a to-go box from the building's mess.