Climate change guide to Trump Cabinet nominations

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Starting on Jan. 10, President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations will undergo confirmation hearings in the Senate.

The process is likely to be full of controversy — particularly when it comes to Trump’s picks and climate change. While climate change is widely accepted as fact, the president-elect and many of his cabinet members have expressed doubts about its corresponding science and the role humans play in warming the planet.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting created a guide to the process focused on five departments that have the most to do with climate change — the Departments of the Interior, State, Energy and Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The nominations come at a time when work on climate change is essential. The departments play key roles in implementing the Paris International Climate Agreement and the Clean Power Plan, while also directing the investment in new technologies.

We will update this story throughout the confirmation process.


Updated March 2

Department of State – ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson

Official transition photo

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson

Confirmed by a 56-43 vote on Feb. 1.

Hearing: Wednesday, Jan. 11

Watch Tillerson’s testimony here.

Department’s role:
“The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

Role in climate change:
The Department of State hosts the Office of Global Change and the Special Envoy for Climate Change, devoted to building partnerships across the globe to combat climate change. The state department often takes the lead in international climate agreements, like the Paris Climate Change Agreement negotiated in 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry has led delegations to numerous international conferences on the issue.

What the department’s official policy says:
“If we’re going to have the ability to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, we have to dramatically accelerate the transition that is already starting. We need to get to a point where clean sources are generating most of the world’s energy, and we need to get there fast.”

What Tillerson says:

“And as human beings as a — as a — as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”

His history:
Rex Tillerson has worked for Exxon since 1975 and has led the world’s largest oil company since 2008.

Tillerson’s close ties to Russia have been discussed at length since his appointment was announced, and Exxon stands to make billions of dollars if sanctions against Russia are lifted by the incoming administration. Tillerson himself has investments in China and Russia, and did business with Iran while the country was under U.S. sanctions.

During the time Tillerson has worked at Exxon, the company has decided not to invest heavily in climate change, despite internal research that showed the effects as far back as the 1970s. The company has also pushed forward with new projects despite knowing the havoc they could wreak on the environment.

However, Tillerson has garnered some praise for admitting that climate change exists, making him one of the more moderate voices in the potential cabinet.

What’s likely to come:
Tillerson’s appointment has garnered the most attention as a place where Senate Democrats may be able to block a key nomination. In the few days after the appointment was announced, key Republican senators questioned Tillerson, though many Republicans are unlikely to cross the oil lobby.

If Tillerson is appointed, drilling in the Russian arctic is likely to ramp up, along with promotion of more fossil fuels. Trump has already mentioned pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, though he has wavered on this idea since the election.

What environmentalists are saying:
“Handing over U.S. global policy to Big Oil is an epic mistake. This industry has been near the center of more conflict than any other in modern time; tapping its chief oilman as the nation’s top diplomat sends the wrong message at home and abroad.” – Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council

“Rex Tillerson and his company are disproportionately responsible for unconscionable backsliding and delay on climate action. A lifelong employee of Exxon, Tillerson has overseen the company’s aggressive attack on state Attorneys General who are investigating Exxon’s deception regarding climate science. His company is a main sponsor of the false debate that climate change-denying EPA appointee Scott Pruitt and others are using to slow crucial progress.” – Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice


Department of Energy – Former Texas Governor Rick Perry (Republican)

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry

Wikimedia Commons

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry

Confirmed by a 62-37 vote on March 2.

Watch Perry’s confirmation hearing online.

Department’s role:
The Department of Energy is charged with ensuring “America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.”

Role in climate change:
The Department of Energy has tried to find ways to reduce carbon emissions, including investing heavily in trying to find ways to make energy generated from fossil fuels cleaner like carbon capture and sequestration. Renewable energy has also been an area that the department has invested heavily in recent years, promoting wind, solar, water, geothermal and bioenergy. The Department of Energy also oversees the nation’s nuclear weapon arsenal.

What the department’s official policy says:
“To fight climate change, the Energy Department supports research and innovation that makes fossil energy technologies cleaner and less harmful to the people and the environment. We’re taking responsible steps to cut carbon pollution, develop domestic renewable energy production and win the global race for clean energy innovation.”

What Perry says:
“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

His history:
The appointment of Perry shows exactly where the Department of Energy will rank in the new administration.

In a presidential debate in 2012, Perry, who was running for the Republican nomination, was listing the three departments of the federal government that he would eliminate, only he couldn’t remember one. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney tried to help him out by suggesting it was the EPA; Perry was amenable to the idea, but about 15 minutes later he remembered – it was the Department of Energy!

Still, Perry has diverse experience when it comes to energy. Texas is the top producer of both natural gas and wind energy. Under Perry, the state had an all-of-the-above energy strategy, spurring investment in oil and gas, wind turbines, coal and nuclear power, though there was very little investment in solar energy. Perry has still been an overall advocate of fossil fuels, claiming the country doesn’t need to move away from coal, oil and gas.

Perry also received more than $14.3 million in contributions from the energy lobby during his tenure as Texas’ longest serving governor.

Perry’s financial disclosure form

Perry’s ethics agreement

What’s likely to come:
Experts say under Perry, you can count on fewer regulations and continued use of fossil fuels. There will likely be some promotion of renewable energy, but there will be less demand for it because fossil fuel supply is likely to increase. A significant downsizing of the department that Perry wanted to eliminate is likely because it’s already been speculated that the new administration will look to rid itself of employees who have worked on climate change issues.

What environmentalists are saying:
“However, the fact that Governor Perry refuses to accept the broad scientific consensus on climate change calls into question his fitness to head up a science-based agency like DOE. His nomination only adds to concerns ignited last week by a questionnaire Trump’s transition team sent to DOE aimed at ferreting out employees focused on climate-related agency work. But there’s also reason for cautious optimism.

“As governor of Texas, Mr. Perry saw the job creation and business opportunity provided by clean energy, helping to turn Texas into the national leader in wind power. In fact, he increased the ambition of the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, directed state funds to innovative wind energy R&D initiatives, and created a ‘Competitive Renewable Energy Zone’ that helped expand transmission of renewables, bringing clean wind energy from rural communities to new state markets.” – Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists

“There are a lot of other Republicans out there that could have been appointed who are interested in the science and don’t have the baggage working for special interests while in office.” – Jim Marston, regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund


Department of the Interior – Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (Republican)

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke

Official Congressional Photo

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke

Confirmed by a 68-31 vote on March 1.

Watch confirmation hearing (Read his opening statement)

Department’s role:
The Department of the Interior oversees the management of about 75 percent of the public lands and natural resources, equal to about one-fifth of the total land in the United States.

Role in climate change:
The Department of the Interior balances the conservation of federal lands versus the use of federal natural resources. Currently, about half of potential U.S. fossil fuels are on federal land, most of which aren’t leased, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Under President Obama, Secretary Sally Jewell has worked to limit oil and gas drilling on public land and water, stop new coal mining leases and encourage renewable energy. This includes a newly imposed limit on offshore oil and gas drilling for at least five years.

What the department’s official policy says:
“Climate change affects every corner of the American continent. It is making droughts drier and longer, floods more dangerous and hurricanes more severe.”

What Zinke says:
“So something’s going on, and so I think you need to be prudent. It doesn’t mean I think you need to be destructive on fossil fuels, but I think you need to be prudent and you need to invest in all-the-above energy.”

His history:
The official climate change policy for the Department of Interior says:

“The glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park are melting so quickly, they’re expected to disappear in the next two decades. Rising seas are consuming the world’s first wildlife refuge – Florida’s Pelican Island – which President Teddy Roosevelt set aside in 1903.”

No one should know the impacts of climate change on Glacier National Park as well as Montana’s only member of the House of Representatives, Ryan Zinke. Zinke has spent his entire life in Whitefish, a tourist town just outside the park. He even commented to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that if you eat lunch in Glacier, you can see glaciers disappear right before your very eyes.

That’s why, it seems, Zinke would be a strong choice to protect federal lands from being destroyed by climate change and extracted of their fossil fuels.

But Zinke, Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, doesn’t live up to that billing. With a lifetime score of 3 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, he is one of the least environmentally friendly members of Congress, consistently voting for fossil fuels, against wildlife protection and against policies to combat climate change. Only 41 members of Congress have a lower lifetime score.

He does believe that climate change exists, but isn’t sure to what extent humans contribute.

“It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either,” he told the Billings Gazette.

Still, he has a record of consistency on some conservation issues, partnering with Democrats to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money to local and state governments for conservation efforts. He also resigned a position as a delegate to the Republican National Convention this summer because the platform called for the transfer of public lands to states.

Zinke’s financial disclosure form

Zinke’s ethics agreement

What’s likely to come:

Expect more drilling, fracking and coal mining under Zinke as he has regularly opposed regulations of these industries.

Zinke’s “all-the-above” energy platform will likely reverse the progress the Department of Interior has made under the Obama administration, leading to more exploitation of public lands for fossil fuels and no review for potential climate impacts of energy projects on federal land.

What environmentalists are saying:
“While he has steered clear of efforts to sell off public lands and supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, far more often Rep. Zinke has advanced policies that favor special interests. His overall record and the backdrop of cabinet nominations with close ties to the fossil fuel industry cause us grave concern. Rep. Zinke has refused to acknowledge that climate change is caused by fossil fuel emissions, while vocally opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce harmful methane emissions. In addition, he has fought efforts to reform coal and voted to scrap environmental safeguards related to logging on national forests.” – Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society

“Though Mr. Zinke has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposes the sale of public lands, he has prioritized the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water and air, and wildlife. Mr. Zinke has advocated for state control of energy development on federal lands, a move that threatens our national parks. Mr. Zinke has repeatedly voted to block efforts to designate new national parks that would diversify the National Parks System.” – Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association


Environmental Protection Agency – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (Republican)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

Confirmed by a 52-46 vote on Feb. 17.

Watch Pruitt’s confirmation hearing here

Department’s role:
The EPA’s role is to protect human health and the environment.

Role in climate change:
The EPA is on the forefront of the battle against climate change. The agency tracks climate information, regulates greenhouse gas emissions, promotes clean energy, provides analysis of potential climate impacts of certain policies, partners with different governmental entities at the state, local and tribal level and helps communities adapt to climate change.

What the department’s official policy says:
“Over the past century, human activities have released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The majority of greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, although deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere.”

What Pruitt says:
“Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.”

His history:
Scott Pruitt has become known as a “puppet” of the oil and gas industry, doing their bidding in Oklahoma, where he serves as Attorney General.

In 2014, Pruitt was infamously caught sending letters to the EPA and other federal departments drafted by lobbyists for oil and gas companies.

In an ironic twist, Pruitt is also one of a number of attorney generals suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan, which requires states to come up with a plan to reduce their carbon emissions from power plants.

Liberty 2.0, a PAC ran by Pruitt, has received almost half of its contributions from the energy lobby.

Pruitt’s financial disclosure form

Pruitt’s ethics agreement

Letter from former EPA heads with concerns about Pruitt

More from Investigate Midwest: Senate Democrats raise questions about EPA nominee’s ethics disclosures

What’s likely to come:

General consensus among experts is that regulations on clean air and water are likely to be lifted, particularly when it comes to fracking. Many experts also believe that the Clean Power Plan is as good as dead, and clean energy won’t get boosts from the EPA anytime soon. It’s even speculated that the recording of climate data is in danger, and it’s not unthinkable that the EPA could cease to exist.

What environmentalists are saying:
“Having Scott Pruitt in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires. He is a climate science denier who, as Attorney General for the state of Oklahoma, regularly conspired with the fossil fuel industry to attack EPA protections.

“Nothing less than our children’s health is at stake. Scott Pruitt, whose own bio describes him as ‘a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda’ cannot be trusted to head the EPA, an agency charged with protecting all Americans from threats to their water, air, and health. We strongly urge Senators, who are elected to represent and protect the American people, to stand up for families across the nation and oppose this nomination.” – Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club

“As the Attorney General, Scott Pruitt did the bidding of the oil and gas industry and fought many of the laws he will now be tasked to enforce. He helped Big Oil turn Oklahoma into an Earthquake zone.” – Benjamin Schreiber, climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth


Department of Agriculture –  Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue

Wikimedia Commons

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue

Hearing: Not yet scheduled

Department’s role:

The USDA focuses on policies regarding food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development and nutrition. The department has a “vision to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.”

Role in climate change:

The USDA oversees much of the tracking of climate change throughout the United States and the communication of that information to farmers through its regional climate hubs and National Climate Assessment. In addition to monitoring changes, the department also leads research on how to mitigate carbon pollution and the effects of climate change. This includes investing in research on agricultural methods and spreading information across the world.

What the department’s official policy says:

Unlike emissions from fossil fuel use, the contributions of CO2 to the atmosphere from land use activities are potentially reversible. Selected management practices show promise for restoration of terrestrial carbon storage. The dominant drivers of land use emissions of carbon are the conversion of forest and grassland to cropland and pasture, the depletion of soil carbon through tillage, wetland ecosystem disturbance, and other land management practices, as well as catastrophic disturbances such as wildland fires and hurricanes.

What Perdue says:

“It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

His history:

Sonny Perdue, who grew up on a cotton farm, served as the Republican governor of Georgia from 2003-2011.

During his time as governor, Perdue signed a bill cracking down on illegal immigration – something that has been a key part of Trump’s agenda.

Since returning to private life, the former governor founded Perdue Partners LLC, a trade organization that focuses on spreading US trade across the world, particularly when it comes to agriculture.

What’s likely to come:

With former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack already stepping down, there is likely to be a significant period of time without anyone in the nation’s top agriculture post.

This slow process has already frustrated many people in the agriculture sector.

The Trump administration’s opposition to deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, clearly contradict the wishes of the agriculture industry, which would see an increase of more than $4 billion in revenues because of the deal. Perdue has not said how he will handle this.

The administration is also likely to crack down on illegal immigration. The agriculture industry is one of the main employers of undocumented workers.

A noted climate change denier, what action Perdue will take on carbon mitigation in agriculture is unclear.

Another important aspect of the pick is that Trump was expected to choose a Latino to run the department, and without one, his Cabinet is the first since Ronald Reagan’s not to have a Latino Cabinet member.

What environmentalists are saying:

“Given Perdue’s position with a global agribusiness trading company and his actions as governor, we are concerned that Perdue will use his position at the USDA to prioritize the profits of big agribusiness and trade over the interests of American farmers, workers and consumers.” – Kari Hamerschlag, a deputy director with Washington-based Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

“It should be no surprise that the incoming Trump administration, which has proposed putting executives from Big Food and Big Oil in top cabinet positions, would pick someone like Governor Perdue – who has received taxpayer-funded farm subsidies – to lead the Department of Agriculture. We hope the Senate will look closely at these subsidies as well as at the political contributions Governor Perdue has received from food giants, farm chemical companies and farm lobbyists, and ask whether he will help fix or help defend a subsidy system rigged against family farmers and the environment. It’s certainly hard to imagine that a former fertilizer salesman will tackle the unregulated farm pollution that poisons our drinking water, turns Lake Erie green, and fouls the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.” – Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs, Environmental Working Group

Background on the delay:

The Department of Agriculture was the last department to have its secretary nominated. Farmers have so far been upset at the lack of attention paid to the position, Bloomberg recently reported.

Politico reported in late December that farmers were unhappy with the candidates that Trump’s transition team was vetting, which included Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (Dem. – North Dakota), Gov. Butch Otter (Rep. – Idaho) and former Texas A&M president Elsa Murano. Farmers were reportedly upset that these candidates were not a part of the “inner circle of farmers, agriculture officials and businessmen who vouched for Trump on the campaign trail.”

Other potential candidates include Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

Mother Jones also reported that Trump is looking for a Latino to fill the position, which could give Murano an edge. Murano, a Cuban-American, served as food safety chief during the Bush administration. Mother Jones also said that Trump was considering Abel Moldanado, the former lieutenant governor of California and a farmer in central California with a colorful history.

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