Bush Team Still Haunts Environmentals
Environmentalists who see this year as their best hope for a major global warming bill can’t seem to escape a familiar foe: former Bush administration officials they fought year after year on energy and climate issues.
As the House Energy and Commerce Committee debates its ambitious cap-and-trade bill, environmentalists will find James Connaughton, President George W. Bush’s top environmental adviser, advocating for Constellation Energy. Karen Harbert, a top Bush Energy Department official, is now heading the energy practice at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a leading critic of Democratic climate change proposals. And F. Chase Hutto III, Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy and environment adviser, has formed ClearView Energy Partners, aimed at helping businesses navigate climate change legislation.
“Like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, they are returning to their natural habitat: big industry,” said Center for American Progress Action Fund climate strategy director Daniel J. Weiss.
To be sure, the revolving door phenomenon is nothing new, and ex-Bush energy and environment advisers were bound to land with the industries they regulated — or, in some cases, deregulated.
But the quick transition from setting policy to directly fighting the environmental policies of the Obama administration may have a real impact on the Capitol Hill debate.
“We’re glad to be rid of the Bush administration, but we’ll never really get rid of the legacy, and these folks will still be in demand by someone,” said Greenpeace research director Kert Davies. “We’re not done by a long shot.”
But green groups say they are also trying to focus the majority of their energy on the Obama administration, casting former Bush aides as a fading memory.
“That’s where we’re focused — on those decision makers and on the Hill,” said Betsy Loyless, the National Audubon Society’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy. “These former [Bush] officials’ knowledge is valuable in some instances. ... It’s not at all surprising that people find their way.”
Environmentalists are particularly flustered by one Bush official who may stay on the inside of the Department of the Interior. The potential appointment of Glenda Owens as director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has sent environmentalists into a tizzy.
Owens, a longtime bureaucrat and current deputy director of the office, helped coal plant operators get environmental reviews streamlined on mountaintop removal — a process that scrapes away the sides and tops of mining mountains, causing extreme topographical and ecological changes. Owens also helped defend the mining agency against lawsuits.
“A lesson the Obama administration should have drawn from Clinton: Do not embrace holdovers,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose group is opposing Owens’ candidacy. “There are lawsuits and litigation pending over this, but no one in the administration is saying no. We are not seeing anything that is articulating change.”
A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar confirmed Owens is among candidates being considered for the position but said no decisions have been made.
“We’re still in the ‘blame Bush’ phase of this session, and one would think that individuals that had positions of high authority would be viewed with some concern,” said Defenders of Wildlife climate expert Richard Charter. “How you get change we can believe in from some of the same folks who brought us the messes we’re in, it’s a legit question to ask.”
Connaughton, who was Bush’s chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is jockeying for energy companies to be drawn into an emissions plan in slow steps, something environmentalists argue will prevent the traction needed to reverse global warming.
Connaughton says he’s carrying out “the next logical steps” on Bush’s agenda on global warming, which he says includes capping carbon emissions.
“Many people are unaware of all the forward definition in the last administration. From where I sit, I’m part of a very exciting continuum,” he said.
One of Bush’s most powerful environmental appointees, he was skewered by greens for supporting voluntary emissions initiatives, including the move to change the Clean Air Act in favor of industry. His job coordinated the environmental actions of all major federal agencies.
Harbert, meanwhile, is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, a group aimed at driving the climate change and energy debate for the business community on Capitol Hill. Harbert was Bush’s assistant policy and international affairs secretary at the Department of Energy, and she moved into the slot after Gen. James Jones was tapped to be Obama’s national security adviser.
While many upper-level appointees are getting enlisted to fight in the climate battle, political experts say many lower-level former Bush employees are also out of work because they are unmarketable. They carry the scarlet “B,” and their skill sets don’t make them valuable enough to major corporations and K Street firms that are eyeing Rolodexes that can reach Rep. Henry Waxman rather than Dick Cheney.
For instance, three months after the Bush administration ended, Chris Brown, a 27-year-old former Bush employee who spent three years at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the White House, was working an unpaid, full-time internship for a congressman.
Some former Bush administration officials have completely switched teams to fit in with the new agenda.
Lynn Scarlett, who held the Interior Department’s No. 2 post as deputy secretary, is now working as a conservation consultant at the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that battled her department over its endangered species listings and a last-minute Bush rule that would have made it easier for coal companies to dump mountaintop mining waste into streams. She was even asked by members of Congress to resign.
And Brian Rogers, who worked on Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign as a press spokesman, has joined Al Gore’s group Alliance for Climate Protection.
Scarlett said she worried about her job prospects after Bush and months of scathing press reports, and she spent the final months of the administration boosting relationships with environmentalists and academics, touting the environmentally friendly work she’d done behind the scenes that rarely got media attention, including her dedication to acting on climate change.
“I hoped that by doing that and always having an open door, people would recognize me as a symbol, not just a blob that was part of the administration,” Scarlett said. “I had to do the best job I could do. But I hoped that if I had integrity, that would be known by people whose respect I cared about and coming out the back end, that would be acknowledged and I would find a home.”
Environmental Defense Fund officials say they have been cautious to keep Scarlett away from their global warming work to avoid conflicts.
“Her skills in terms of resource economics and ecosystems have been helpful to us,” said fund Vice President Mary Kelly. “It’s a big department, and there were a lot of people there; particular people were more responsible for egregious acts than others.”
Even as they make their way through the revolving door, it’s unclear how much influence former Bush administration officials will have with Democrats writing climate change bills.
“How effective they are at corrupting the debate depends on how strong the leadership is from Obama and Congress. And they’re getting hammered right now,” Davies said.