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Climate advocates urge senators to oppose Biden's District Court nominee

The Climate 202

Correction: A previous version of this newsletter said that Gibson Dunn represented Chevron in controversial environmental cases, including litigation over the Dakota Access pipeline. The sentence has been updated to clarify that Chevron is not involved with the Dakota Access pipeline.

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Climate advocates urge senators to oppose Biden's District Court nominee

President Biden's nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court has garnered high-profile praise from liberal groups. But some climate and social justice activists are waging a lower-profile campaign to block Biden's nominee for a District Court, citing her past work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. 

The campaign targets Jennifer Rearden, whom Biden nominated in January to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, one of the nation's most influential federal trial courts. She was tapped by President Donald Trump in February 2020 but was not confirmed by the Senate. 

Activists argue that Rearden is unfit for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench because of her past work for the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has represented the oil giant Chevron in controversial environmental cases (including fights over oil waste left behind in Ecuador) and also represented the Dakota Access pipeline in Montana.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Rearden's nomination on Monday. While the panel is widely expected to advance her nomination, a coalition of more than 200 public interest organizations — including environmental groups such as, Greenpeace USA and the Sunrise Movement — is urging senators to oppose the nomination on the floor.

According to a person familiar with the matter, six senators are still wavering over whether to support Rearden on the floor. They are Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), according to the individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive political deliberations.

If all six senators decide to oppose Rearden on the floor, Democratic leadership would need to wrangle support from Republicans, who might find Rearden palatable because she originally was nominated by Trump. Moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Wednesday said she would back Jackson for the Supreme Court, giving the White House at least a minimally bipartisan vote.

In an interview with The Climate 202 yesterday, Ossoff, a member of the Judiciary Committee, declined to say whether he planned to back Rearden on Monday.

“I will vote to confirm Judge Jackson for the Supreme Court, and I will complete additional due diligence for the other nominees who are scheduled for Monday between now and the markup,” he said.

When approached by The Climate 202 in the Senate basement yesterday, both Warren and Markey declined to comment on Rearden’s nomination, while a spokeswoman for Merkley said in an email that the Oregon Democrat “hasn’t formally taken a position on this nomination yet.”

Done with Gibson Dunn

In 2011, Gibson Dunn represented Chevron in litigation against Steven Donziger, an environmental and human rights attorney who had won a multibillion-dollar judgment against the oil company over environmental contamination in the Amazon. 

While Rearden was not a lead counsel in the Donziger litigation, she was involved in at least 37 billable hours of work on the case, for which Chevron was charged more than $30,000, records show

“As fossil fuel-caused superstorms, fires, droughts, and other disasters kill people and ravage the planet, Gibson Dunn is one of the firms most prominently defending fossil fuel producers from efforts to hold them accountable,” said a recent letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) from organizations opposing Rearden's nomination.

One signatory of the letter was Law Students for Climate Accountability, a group of climate-conscious students at law schools across the country.

“Especially at a time when the Biden administration has failed to accomplish the climate agenda that they promised, nominating a Trump judge from Gibson Dunn sends the wrong signal,” Tim Hirschel-Burns, the co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability and a third-year law student at Yale, told The Climate 202.

A Gibson Dunn spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Rearden's backers

Michael Gerrard, founding director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee in February supporting Rearden's nomination.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has also remained a staunch supporter of Rearden, telling reporters recently that critics have “misunderstood her role in some litigation that her firm carried.” 

Gillibrand spokesman Evan Lukaske said in an email to The Climate 202: “Jennifer Rearden’s extensive knowledge of federal law and record of accomplishment will make her a tremendous asset to the Southern District of New York. Senator Gillibrand was proud to recommend her to the president and expects she will be confirmed.” 

Pressure points

Biden announces significant strategic oil reserve release to curb gas prices

President Biden on Thursday announced the release of 1 million barrels a day over the next six months from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve — an effort to make up for the loss of Russian oil from global markets amid the war in Ukraine and to cut the cost of gas, The Washington Post's Steven Mufson and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. report. 

The release — which will hit the market in May, according to a senior administration official — marks the largest withdrawal in the reserve’s more than 46-year history. It comes as some congressional committees are calling on oil executives to testify about rising gas prices despite high profits for the industry. 

“It’s not the time to sit on record profits. It’s time to step up for the good of your country,” Biden said Thursday in remarks at the White House. He also said he would adopt a “use it or lose it” policy to make oil and gas companies pay for drilling leases that are being left idle rather than explored.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told The Climate 202 on Thursday that the release won’t undermine the nation’s long-term transition to clean energy.

“It gives us an opportunity to protect consumers in the short term, while we put in place a long-term, clean-energy, all-electric-vehicle strategy … and reduce and ultimately eliminate our need to put oil into gasoline vehicles in the United States,” he said.

Here’s more from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): 

On the Hill

House panel to grill Postal Service on gas-powered trucks contract

The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday announced it will hold a hearing on the Postal Service’s decision to buy about 148,000 gas-guzzling delivery trucks despite calls from the Biden administration to transition to an electric federal fleet, The Washington Post's Jacob Bogage reports.

The hearing, to be held Tuesday, will focus on the agency’s “next generation delivery vehicles” that are scheduled to hit the road in 2023. The agency will spend about $11.3 billion on the new trucks from Oshkosh Defense over the next decade to replace its aging fleet, but only 10 percent of the new vehicles will be electric. 

The Postal Service’s plan locks in gas-powered trucks for at least the next 20 years, falling well behind the White House’s goal of moving the entire federal civilian fleet to electric by 2035. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and Postal Service vehicles make up the biggest share of the government’s civilian fleet. 

Victoria Stephen, head of the Postal Service’s “next generation delivery vehicles,” or NGDV program, and Postal Service Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb will testify before the panel, Committee Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. 

Sens. Cramer and Coons urge Biden, European Commission to consider climate in trade deals

Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) today sent a letter to President Biden urging him to work with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to consider climate in trade deals.

“To be successful, we must focus on the long-term opportunity to bolster our trade relationships with nations who prioritize clean, innovative energy sources,” the senators wrote in the letter.

The letter comes a week after the Biden administration and the European Commission announced plans to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy by sending additional shipments of liquefied natural gas to Europe amid Russia’s continued attack on Ukraine. 

Cramer has also advocated for a carbon border fee, which would slap a tax on imports from countries that aren't taking aggressive steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

International climate

U.N. unveils group to assess companies’ net zero pledges

The United Nations on Thursday announced it will unveil a group of 16 experts to review corporate pledges to reach net-zero emissions, an effort to ensure that companies deliver on their promises and prevent greenwashing, Valerie Volcovici of Reuters reports.

“Despite growing pledges of action, global emissions are at an all-time high,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. “Tougher net-zero standards and strengthened accountability around the implementation of these commitments can deliver real and immediate emissions cuts.” 

The group, which was launched at the U.N. climate summit in Scotland in November, comes as environmental groups sue companies that lack details about their emissions plans and as regulators begin to question corporate climate commitments.

Agency alert

Rule will require valves on new pipelines to stave off disasters

The Transportation Department on Monday finalized a rule that requires companies to install emergency valves on new pipelines, Matthew Brown reports for the Associated Press. The decision comes in response to a fatal gas explosion in California as well as massive oil spills in Michigan, among other states.

The valves can quickly shut off the flow of oil, natural gas or other hazardous fuels when pipelines rupture. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the rule could also prevent large leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 


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