One of the most embarrassing political flops of 2017 was Donald Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White, a longtime fossil-fuel advocate, to direct the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Her confirmation hearing was a disaster, captured for posterity on YouTube. While she made it out of committee on party lines, the full Senate declined to consider her nomination as part of a bipartisan deal.
Now, she’s back.
To the surprise of Hill-watchers, White has been re-nominated, setting up a showdown with Democrats and Republicans alike. (Per Senate rules, nominees not confirmed at the end of the year must be re-submitted.) One observer called her “the most endangered of President Trump’s environmental nominees.”
We’re all used to the “fox guarding the henhouse” phenomenon in this administration: a longtime opponent of public schools heading the Education Department, a man who made his name suing the Environmental Protection Agency now heading it, and on down the line. So it’s not surprising that White has spent her career taking money from ExxonMobil and the Koch network and spouting nonsense about how fossil fuels ended slavery, emit “plant nutrients,” and, of course, do not contribute to global climate disruption.
What was surprising was how awfully she performed at that hearing.
First, it was revealed that many of her written answers to the committee were apparently cut and pasted, word for word, from the answers submitted by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his assistant Bill Wehrum.
Then came the hearing itself.
At one point, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked White to estimate how much of the excess heat from climate change is stored in the oceans—a detailed question for you or me, but pretty standard for a climate-policy person. White said she didn’t know, but said there were many opinions and “no right answer.” That’s the fossil-fuel industry’s refrain, of course.
Whitehouse asked if there was a “serious scientific opinion that it’s below 50 percent.” White said yes. Whitehouse said, “Wow.”
The actual answer is 90 percent, and there is no dispute about that.
Then Sen. Whitehouse asked if White agreed that water expands as it heats, a principle that can be proven on any kitchen stovetop. White said, “I do not have any kind of expertise or even much layman’s study of the ocean dynamics.”
Of course, water does expand as it heats, which is why hundreds of millions of people will likely have to flee coastal areas in the next few decades.
For good measure, White also contradicted the EPA’s new policy that its scientists may not attend conferences on climate-change science, and contradicted her own published statement that “the IPCC’s highly politicized and speculative science [is] increasingly contradicted by empirical evidence,” saying at the hearing that the intergovernmental panel of climate-change scientists “is a very good source.”
Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, “In the 17 years I have been in the Senate, I have never sat through a hearing as excruciating as Ms. White’s.”
Nor was the hearing a one-time flub. Here’s a 2015 video in which, tripping over her words, White praises the “really beneficial impacts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Satellites already show a greening of the earth, in part from very small amount of carbon dioxide involved with using fossil fuels.”
There is absolutely no basis in fact for that claim.
Also in 2015, White wrote a piece for TownHall.com exclaiming that:
“No matter how many times, [sic] the President, EPA, and press rant about ‘dirty carbon pollution,’ there is no pollution about carbon itself! As a dictionary will tell you, carbon is the chemical basis of all life. Our flesh, blood, and bones are built of carbon. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas of life on this planet, an essential nutrient for plant growth on which human life depends. How craftily our government has masked these fundamental realities and the environmental benefits of fossil fuels!”
Crafty indeed. Of course, White is here conflating the carbon-heavy pollution from coal (“particulate matter,” i.e. soot and dust), which is responsible for 3 million deaths annually, with carbon dioxide, which indeed is an “essential nutrient” but has hit concentration levels in the atmosphere not seen for 125,000 years.
The only question is whether White is knowingly deceiving people in such statements, or whether she is indeed so ignorant or brainwashed that she believes this sort of thing. Is she a dupe or a knave? I’m not sure.
White is also a conspiracy theorist. Her opinion on climate change isn’t just that it’s not so bad (a position at odds with 99.5 percent of actual climate scientists) but that the whole thing is, as Trump once said, a hoax. In that same Townhall piece, White wrote:
“As the evidence for unprecedented warming temperatures, extreme weather events, declining Arctic ice, and rising sea levels wanes, the entrenched warmists’ grasp for familiar tags such as “pollution” or “environmental protection” to sanitize their grand schemes to decarbonize human societies.”
Note the combination of lies and myths here. First, there is (and was in 2015) abundant evidence for every one of the items White mentions: the unprecedented warming of the climate, extreme weather events, declining Arctic ice, and rising sea levels.
Second, there’s the conspiracy-mongering: “grand schemes to decarbonize human societies.” White has made this claim many times: that the entire climate-science field, all around the world, is actually a cabal to undermine fossil fuels.
Why would they want to do so? Leftist totalitarianism. In a 2014 blog post, she wrote, referring to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Sometimes a single voice throws in hard relief the delusion, misanthropy, and unabashedly totalitarian policy of the Left. These characteristics are particularly embedded in the Left's secular religion: Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming.”
That was also the piece in which White wrote that “There is, in fact, a historical connection between the abolition of slavery and humanity’s first widespread use of energy from fossil fuels.”
(Her point is that industrialization and urbanization were enabled by the use of coal and oil. In fact, the Industrial Revolution increased demand for slave-labor-produced raw materials, making slavery more lucrative. Also, you know, the abolition of slavery may have had other causes as well.)
White’s résumé certainly makes her appear to be bright and qualified. Her current title is “distinguished senior fellow in residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & Environment” at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). Previously, she chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality under Gov. Rick Perry.
But look closer. TPPF is part of the State Policy Network, a system of conservative think tanks that are funded by Koch-backed dark-money groups DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, as well as the Koch-backed Claude R. Lambe and Charles G. Koch foundations, and ExxonMobil.
Like many such “think tanks,” the TPPF is fake. The only thinking that goes on is of thoughts that Big Oil pays for.
When White ran the TCEQ, she voted to build a new coal plant near Dallas, despite opposition from officials in 24 cities and counties; falsified data to help polluters get around water regulations; and, according to a 2003 Texas state audit, did “not consistently ensure violators are held accountable” for pollution.
This is how one makes a career as a lackey for the fossil-fuel industry: First they pay for your fake job, then they get you into a position of power where you implement their policies. You can coast through for decades without anyone calling your bluff.
But the Senate just might: Just two Republican defections would doom White’s candidacy. Eyes are focused, as usual, on Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has a strong environmental record and who voted against confirming Pruitt, as well as senators from agricultural states that stand to lose if White is confirmed.
Of course, the Senate has confirmed Trump’s anti-environmental picks before—but then, none of them were quite as willfully ignorant as Kathleen White.