Science Policy & Funding News

White Draws Fire as Nominee to Head Key Environmental Agency

Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality, distanced herself from a new climate report and squabbled with Democrats at a Senate confirmation hearing.

By

Less than a week after an authoritative White House climate science report reaffirmed that human activities are the dominant cause of global warming, the Trump administration’s nominee to lead a key environment office disputed those findings and disavowed the report itself at her confirmation hearing.

Kathleen Hartnett White, whom the administration wants to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), dismissed the report “as a product of the past administration and not of this president” at a 7 November hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

White, a nonscientist who does not believe in the scientific consensus that humans are the main driver of modern climate change, acknowledged at the hearing that climate change is real and that human activity “more than likely” has an effect on climate change. However, she said “the extent to which [it has had an effect] I think is very uncertain.”

If White is confirmed and becomes chair of the CEQ, she would lead an office that coordinates federal environmental efforts. She currently is a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and was chairwoman and commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) from 2001 to 2007.

Climate Science Takes Center Stage

At the hearing, White said that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has none of the characteristics of a pollutant “that can have direct impact on human health,” and she labeled CO2 as “a plant nutrient.”

Asked by committee member Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) whether she believes that CO2 levels have risen dramatically, White responded, “No, I would not say they have gone up drastically. I know they have risen from preindustrial times.”

The Climate Science Special Report, which the administration released on 3 November, concludes that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The report also states that “today the global CO2 concentration is increasing rapidly” and that the growth rate in atmospheric carbon emissions from human activities has increased from 1.5 to 2 parts per million per year over the past 15–20 years.

The climate science report “needs to be taken seriously,” Merkley told Eos after the hearing. “Obviously, anything that disagrees with [White’s] preestablished view that there is no damage from carbon dioxide she rejects outright. That’s not helpful in taking on the challenges of the world.”

White’s Track Record Debated

During the hearing, White pointed to her track record at TCEQ and said that during her chairmanship, the state’s population, economy, and jobs grew while point source emissions were dramatically reduced. She said, “I think totally in terms of fundamental protection of human health and welfare, and risks to children particularly motivate me.” In her written testimony, she described herself as “an environmental optimist” who believes in and played a part in win-win environmental and economic outcomes.

White also called herself “a great champion of getting rid of red tape,” noting that she would welcome “the challenge” of reforming the National Environmental Policy Act, including shortening the process for federal agencies to assess environmental impacts of their proposed actions before making decisions.

Republicans, including Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), rose to her defense. “I understand several of the extremists are driving a narrative that you hate the environment and worked to give cover to polluters when you were with [TCEQ],” Inhofe said. However, he said that during White’s tenure there, administrative environmental enforcement orders and the amounts of penalties “increased significantly.”

Yet a 17 October editorial in the Dallas News provides a different perspective of White’s time at TCEQ. The paper wrote that her record “is abominable” and that as TQEC chair she regularly sided with business interests at the expense of public health and that she lobbied for lax ground-level ozone standards.

Committee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Eos that the editorial “is a pretty strong signal that the public interest won’t get a fair shake” from White.

“Far out of the Mainstream”

Democrats voiced opposition to White’s nomination during her confirmation hearing and at a briefing directly afterward.
Democrats voiced strong opposition to White’s nomination during her confirmation hearing and at a news briefing directly afterward. Pictured (left to right) at the news briefing are Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Credit: Randy Showstack

Other Democrats at the hearing lined up for their opportunity to challenge White about climate science and some earlier statements she had made, including equating those who believe that global warming is occurring with being pagans.

“Your positions are so far out of the mainstream that they’re not just outliers, they’re outrageous,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, called White a “science denier” and said that she “has shown a disdain for science, a disregard for the laws and regulations already on the books, and a staggering disrespect for people who have views with whom she disagrees.”

At a news briefing after the hearing, Carper called White “a dangerous person” and said that he would work to defeat her nomination.

However, committee chair Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said that he expects White’s nomination to clear the committee and be sent to the Senate floor sometime after 20 November, her deadline for responding to written questions from committee members.

At the briefing, Whitehouse said that Democrats need to use their Senate floor time to alert the public about the conflicts of interest and “extremism” that White and other nominees embody. Democrats, he said, need to call out “the danger that [White and others] present to public health down the road, from all of the signals and warnings that they are going to deliberately tune out because they don’t want to hear them.”

Whitehouse added, “It’s really most important to make sure that these individuals go into office clearly marked as the industry hacks who they are, so that there’s no surprise about that.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), White draws fire as nominee to head key environmental agency, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO086581. Published on 09 November 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0