Special Topics in Environmental Management

CEQ Nominee Softens Past Statements in Hearing

During a nomination hearing, Kathleen Harnett White, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) was asked to explain multiple past statements that troubled Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW). In a subsequent vote, the EPW approved White for a full Senate vote; all Democrats on the committee were opposed.

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The past statements made by White include questioning whether human activity impacts climate change and whether a warming climate change is actually a danger, expressing doubt that particulate matter and ozone in the atmosphere are harmful to people, and saying the renewable fuel standard (RFS) is unethically depriving people of food. In her testimony, White retreated somewhat from these statements and noted that she considers climate change one the three major environmental issues in the United States today.

CEQ a Federal Coordinator

The CEQ has multiple functions. It was formed by Congress under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often called the bedrock of U.S. environmental law because it requires the federal government to assess the environmental effects of proposed actions before making decisions. The results of those reviews are critical to permitting decisions for major infrastructure projects. Over the years, the CEQ has undertaken other functions, including coordinating federal environment-related efforts when multiple agencies are involved. Under President Barack Obama, the CEQ cochaired the president’s Climate Adaptation Task Force to help communities strengthen their resilience to extreme weather and to prepare for other impacts of climate change.

Brought Houston into Attainment

From 2001 to 2007, White served as Chairman and Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She currently serves as a distinguished senior fellow in residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which she joined in 2008.

Throughout the hearing, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), EPW Chair, produced a series of endorsements for White, including one from Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, who said White has over 30 years’ experience on environmental issues and possesses an “outstanding record.” White stated that her proudest achievement as Texas’s top environmental official was implementing a plan to get Houston, historically among the U.S. cities with the worst air pollution, into attainment with the federal ozone standard in 2010 and 2011. That was “far earlier than many thought possible,” said White.

Democrats Question White’s Positions

The hearing fireworks were generated by the Democrats. For example, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) referred to a radio interview given by White in 2016, in which she said that ozone is not harmful to human health unless “you put your mouth over the tailpipe of a car for eight hours every day.” Carper went on to list the types of illnesses that ozone causes and asked White if she agreed with those health effects. She said she did.

Carper referred to speeches and magazine interviews White gave in 2015 and 2016 in which she compared the views of people who believe that carbon pollution is causing climate change to those of pagans, ideologues, and communists. Asked by Carper if those are the views she embraces, White responded, “I would not put it that way.”

White was also challenged by several Democrats on the science of climate change. After she stated that science has not established how much excess heat has been absorbed by the oceans, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked her if she thought the oceans expand as they warm. White answered that she does not have the expertise to give an answer.

RFS Is Now OK

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) received some mild assurances from White that she has walked back her previous views that the RFS threatened the food supply. But Senator Tami Duckworth (D-IL) noted White’s past ties to the oil industry, including owning several leases for oil production. Duckworth also submitted for the record White’s past statement that the RFS is unethical and should be repealed.

A transcript of the hearing is here. The transcript includes testimony by Andrew Wheeler, whom President Donald Trump has nominated to be EPA’s deputy administrator. Wheeler, who once served as a lobbyist for coal mining giant Murray Energy, was also approved by the EPW without a single Democrat vote.