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The Energy 202: Biden's choice for a top economic aide is dividing environmentalists

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden's choice for one of his top White House economic advisers has sparked division among environmentalists.

Brian Deese, a managing director at investment giant BlackRock who served as a senior economic official during President Barack Obama's administration, is expected to return to the White House to head the president-elect's National Economic Council, our colleagues Jeff Stein, Annie Linskey and Seung Min Kim report.

After four years of President Trump, Biden is bringing back an experienced aide for the arduous task of reestablishing the federal government's efforts to combat climate change while reviving the economy.

But the appointment, which does not need Senate confirmation, is also another spin of the revolving door between the White House and Wall Street that is troubling for liberal groups that were critical of Trump officials for being too cozy with corporate interests.

Deese also finds himself caught in a tug-of-war among environmentalists still trying to navigate the new political terrain in Biden's Washington.

The dust-up is another sign of simmering tensions between moderate establishment Democrats who served under Obama and the younger, vocal wing of the party that came of age under Trump.

Deese helped craft the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement and the auto industry bailout after the 2008-2009 Great Recession. While Deese served as a senior adviser on climate and energy policy during Obama's second term, the administration ratcheted up regulation of greenhouse gas polluters and protection of lands and waters from Hawaii to New England.

But that is not enough for some green activists, who are upset about Deese's employment by a financial backer of fossil fuels.

In July, the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate group, sent a letter to the Biden campaign urging it not to consider any BlackRock executives for the administration. 

“Many people have pointed to Brian Deese’s record in the Obama administration on climate change as evidence that he will be a very strong advocate for bold climate action from his perch as NEC director,” said Evan Weber, Sunrise's political director. “We don’t wish to litigate Brian’s record or his commitment — it’ll be his job to prove that every day in his position.”

“Appointing people in charge of climate from the Obama era to a Biden-Harris administration isn’t going to inspire confidence or excitement from the youth climate justice movement,” he added.

But Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, a deep-pocketed green group that backs many Democrats' electoral bids, said that experience makes Deese the “climate leader we need at President Biden’s side as they rebuild our economy.”

“Brian is just an incredibly effective leader,” said Christy Goldfuss, a former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality who worked with Deese. Her former colleague, she added, has “a deep understanding of what motivates people to act and how to get the best out of people.

At Obama's White House, Deese went to bat for his energy policies.

For example, he defended the Obama administration's plans to drill in the Arctic as safe and limited, and said Obama-era safety standards on fracking on federal lands struck “an appropriate balance between protecting public health and safety, and allowing for responsible production.”

But that stance is somewhat out of step with Biden now. During the campaign, the former vice president promised to end all leasing and permitting on public lands after U.N. climate scientists wrote in 2018 that the world has only a decade to cut greenhouse gas emissions and forestall dangerous levels of warming. 

“There were different considerations in the White House coming out of that recession,” said Goldfuss, who is now senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress. “The science was different. The facts that we were aware of were different.” 

Deese has also come under criticism for taking a post-government job at BlackRock. 

As the world's largest asset manager, the firm has significant stakes in many fossil fuel ventures.

“Send a clear message to Biden: no hires with terrible climate records!” the New York chapter of Sunrise, wrote on Twitter when calling for a protest of the Deese pick at BlackRock's Midtown Manhattan headquarters.

But another prominent environmentalist, Bill McKibben, who knows Deese personally and even performed his wedding, cautioned his fellow activists against dismissing “good-hearted bureaucrats” out of hand.

“I imagine he'll work steadfastly and competently and honorably, to the betterment of the world, and that he'll get a lot done,” McKibben, founder of, wrote in a long Twitter thread defending Deese. “Will it be enough? It will not. No one thing is. But it will be useful.”

During Deese's tenure as global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the company has said it would turn over a new, green leaf and make climate change central to its investment strategy as fiercer storms, harsher droughts and stiffer regulations threaten some businesses' bottom lines.

Moira Birss, climate and finance director at Amazon Watch, says BlackRock can go further. 

Although the firm announced earlier this year that it would divest from companies that generate more than a quarter of their revenue from coal used in power plants, for example, it has not ruled out support for other coal-mining firms.  

“Both the announcement itself and the implementation of it since then have been mediocre at best,” Birss said. 

She is apprehensive about Deese's appointment, adding: “I'm hopeful that I'm proven wrong.” 

Power plays

Lawmakers could vote this week on a big cat bill backed by ‘Tiger King’ stars.

The Netflix’s smash-hit documentary “Tiger King" rekindled interest in a dormant bill that would restrict private ownership of big cats. Now the Big Cat Public Safety Act will get a vote in the House as soon as Thursday, Bloomberg Law reports.

Series star Carole Baskin and her husband Howard, who run the Florida-based sanctuary Big Cat Rescue Corp., called it “the most important big cat bill ever.”

Meanwhile, the series other major star, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, has also found his way into the news. 

Maldonado-Passage is serving a 22-year sentence for trying to hire a hit man to kill Carole Baskin, but his representatives have been working on a campaign to convince Trump to pardon their client, reportedly running up a $10,000 tab at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, according to the New York Times.

Bank of America said it will not fund Arctic drilling.

The move means that the six biggest banks in the United States — including Bank of America’s peers Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citi — have all pulled back from financing fossil fuel projects in the Arctic. The last major bank to hold out on a formal commitment, Bank of America, was the target of a pressure campaign by environmental groups.

Larry Di Rita, the bank’s head of public policy and strategy in Washington, told Bloomberg News that the bank’s position had been “misunderstood” and that the bank had not historically financed oil and gas projects in the Arctic and was merely codifying existing practice.

The Trump administration, however, is forging ahead with its plan to start selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The outgoing administration has also proposed a rule prohibiting banks from refusing to lend to entire business categories, a move aimed at curtailing banks’ ability to rule out fossil fuel funding in the Arctic.

The Senate confirmed two FERC nominees.

Democrat Allison Clements and Republican Mark Christie will join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the independent government panel that oversees utilities and large energy projects. President Trump nominated Christie, a longtime utility regulator, and Clements, a clean energy consultant and former advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, following a tradition of bipartisan pairings to the energy regulator.

The confirmations bring FERC back up to its full five-member capacity. The move also ensures that Republicans will have a 3-to-2 majority on the panel until June when the term of Republican Commissioner Neil Chatterjee ends, leaving an opening for Biden to nominate a replacement. 

ExxonMobil writes down assets as the oil and gas industry continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Monday, the Texas oil giant said it would significantly cut spending and signaled it would write off between $17 billion and $20 billion of its investment in gas fields across North and South America. 

“That could make it the industry’s steepest impairment since BP Plc’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” Bloomberg reports, as the industry still suffers from the fall in oil demand during the viral outbreak.


Climate change could spark the next mortgage crisis.

The federal government is pumping taxpayer money into mortgages for homes that are located in areas that face grave dangers from climate-fueled flooding, Politico reports. If home value tumble and insurers stop underwriting policies, “the more than trillion-dollar Fannie-Freddie portfolio could take an enormous hit, big enough to knock the economy into recession or worse,” Politico writes. 

Analysts and investors warn that climate will catch up with real estate values in many parts of the country. Although some homes are protected by flood insurance, many homes now considered at risk from flooding fall outside the 100-year flood plain.

But any significant effort to price climate risks into the mortgages could decimate the real estate market and disproportionately hurt low-income families and communities of color, an impact that runs counter the mission of the government agencies tasks with overseeing loans.

“The result, many current and former federal housing officials acknowledge, is a peculiar kind of stasis — a crisis that everyone sees coming but no one feels empowered to prevent, even as banks and investors grow far savvier about assessing climate risk,” Politico writes.