An energy industry lawyer whose client list includes Exxon Mobil Corp. crafted comments in defense of a White House nominee for a top environmental post as if they were written by President Donald Trump himself.
The episode, revealed in emails obtained exclusively by HuffPost, further shows the fossil fuel industry’s enormous reach into the Trump administration.
In December 2017, journalist Mark Greenblatt of Scripps emailed the White House several questions on the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to head its Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates federal environmental policy under the National Environmental Policy Act. Greenblatt’s query included four questions addressed specifically to the president about Hartnett White, a climate change denier who works for the Koch brothers-backed Texas Public Policy Foundation. Last year alone, the Charles Koch Foundation donated more than $1.8 million to the conservative organization.
An email chain, obtained by HuffPost from the Council on Environmental Quality through a freedom of information request, details what actually transpired behind the scenes.
White House press officers informed the Council on Environmental Quality of Greenblatt’s questions. The council’s associate director for regulatory reform, Mario Loyola, a political appointee who formerly worked with Hartnett White at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, then forwarded the questions to Hartnett White.
The next morning, Hartnett White wrote back to Loyola, and forwarded him answers to the journalist’s questions drafted by Derek Seal, an attorney at the law firm Winstead who currently represents Exxon Mobil.
“Here are some sample responses that I like,” Hartnett White told Loyola.
Copied on the email from Seal were several other energy industry attorneys and lobbyists. Among them were Michael Nasi, a critic of EPA regulations who represents coal and mining interests, and Gary Gibbs, who lobbies for the utility American Electric Power. Nasi also recently took over the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Life:Powered PR campaign, which promotes fossil fuels and downplays renewable energy.
“I would answer the questions you want to answer,” Seal coached the White House in his email, “rather than try to answer the loaded questions that have been asked.”
Seal nonetheless crafted answers to each of the four questions in Greenblatt’s original query. In response to a question asking whether Trump knew of Hartnett White’s role in underreporting radiation levels in drinking water when she led the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the mid 2000s ― which she first denied in her Senate confirmation hearing, but Greenblatt’s reporting showed otherwise ― Seal suggested this answer: “The President is aware that Ms. White made thousands of decisions while she was at TCEQ. Many of those decisions where highly technical and based on her expertise and the expertise of her staff.”
To the question of whether Trump still supports Hartnett White’s nomination in light of the troubling answers she gave at her hearing, Seal offered: “The Administration has not been provided with any credible reason not to support Ms. White’s nomination.”
Seal then signed off: “The President.”
The emails also reveal that Hartnett White spoke with Seal on the phone about his comments, and that Loyola tried to contact him as well.
The White House ultimately declined to comment for Greenblatt’s article, which was published two days after the email exchanges.
In February, as doubts about Hartnett White’s qualifications and expertise increased ― even among Senate Republicans ― the White House withdrew her nomination.
Asked by HuffPost to comment on the emails, a Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson said that “while assisting with the nomination process, Loyola forwarded the questions from the December 2017 inquiry to the then-nominee, Hartnett White, because they pertained to her ongoing Senate nomination process.”
The White House did not respond to questions. Neither Seal nor Hartnett White answered similar requests.
“The emails illustrate the extent to which the Trump administration is willing to nominate someone who is a mouthpiece for polluters to a top environmental position."”
The episode is precisely the sort of behind-the-scenes coziness between industry and government representatives that concerns ethics watchdog groups.
“The emails expose the Trump administration eagerly using energy lobbyists to craft PR and provide answers to journalist’s queries,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “This is wildly inappropriate, and demonstrates the importance of aggressive congressional oversight of the administration’s penchant for taking marching orders from corporate lobbyists.”
The case also further illustrates the powerful sway the fossil fuel industry and the Koch network has on Trump’s administration and its energy policies. From a former Exxon Mobil CEO serving as Trump’s first secretary of state to an Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department that have worked to benefit the industries they supposedly regulate, oil, gas and coal interests have wielded powerful influence over policy at the highest levels of government.
The attempt to install Hartnett White at the helm of Council on Environmental Quality was part of this influence.
“The emails illustrate the extent to which the Trump administration is willing to nominate someone who is a mouthpiece for polluters to a top environmental position,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, which monitors attacks on renewable energy by the fossil fuel industry.
A review of the Council on Environmental Quality’s visitor logs shows that Loyola met with Nasi and Gibbs – the lobbyists copied on Seal’s email – shortly before Hartnett White’s confirmation hearing. Another email obtained by HuffPost reveals Hartnett White shared her opening statement with Loyola a week in advance of the hearing.
Loyola is one of many former employees and fellows from Koch-backed groups and think tanks now working in the Trump administration. His work calendar from the first half of 2017 suggests he’s involved in ongoing efforts to expedite environmental reviews of infrastructure projects. In his writings, published in such conservative outlets as The Federalist, National Review and The Weekly Standard, Loyola has railed against the EPA and climate change policy.
Only a month before he joined Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality, Loyola questioned the scientific consensus that humans are driving the climate crisis, employing the common denialist trope of “climate alarmism.”