Week 51: Back to the Drawing Board, Rick Perry

FERC smacks down Rick Perry on coal, Zinke plays favorites with Florida, and Pruitt is investigated (again).

January 12, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Rick Perry Gets Totally FERC’d

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to delay the retirement of outdated coal and nuclear power plants. The “Perry directive” would have delivered bonus payments to energy plants that used solid fuel, like coal or uranium. He argued that solid fuels are necessary for grid resiliency, a position that FERC recognized as utter nonsense.

The commission rejected Perry’s contention that the current price regime is unduly discriminatory against solid fuels and chided the secretary for failing to develop an adequate evidentiary record in support of his proposal. The commissioners saw the directive for what it was—a brazen attempt to keep the coal industry on government-funded life support.

It’s a significant rebuke to the Trump administration, because four of the five FERC commissioners are Trump appointees. It’s also encouraging to know that at least some of Trump’s picks are in touch with reality.

Perry claims to be solving a problem, but the problem doesn’t exist. When your power goes out, it’s almost never because the power plant ran out of stuff to burn; just 0.00007% of major power outages in the past five years were caused by supply issues. There’s simply no reason to believe that subsidizing utilities to stash enormous piles of coal in their backyards would help in any way.

Trump Won’t Take “Seriously?” for an Answer

At the end of the last congressional session, the Senate returned many nominations to the White House without taking any action because there weren’t enough “yes” votes. Donald Trump is frustrated that the Senate is taking so long to confirm his nominees for key positions. But maybe, just maybe, the nomination process would move faster if he stopped nominating incompetents.

Among those “return to sender” notes was the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White, the former chairperson of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She denies that climate change is a problem, calling carbon dioxide “a harmless trace gas.”

Every Democratic senator opposed White’s nomination to lead President Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality, but even Republicans pointed out her bizarre views and limited knowledge. “I worry about your lack of understanding,” Republican senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska told White in a committee hearing, referring to her unexplained flip-flopping on biofuels. “I worry about your extremist views.”

Keep worrying, Senator Fischer, because President Trump has renominated White for the CEQ job, along with a raft of other extremists and incompetents. There he goes again.

Screening Out Science

A U.S. Department of the Interior memo, made public this week, orders that certain grants undergo a political screening process. A previously obscure Interior official named Steve Howke will now decide whether grants “align” with the administration’s “priorities”―i.e., whether they might aid in President Trump’s and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s quest to extract every ounce of fossil fuel from federal lands.

Most notable among the applications slated for political review are grants headed for universities—you know, the places where science is done. Universities conduct research for the Department of Interior on endangered species preservation, weather monitoring, and a range of other important topics that are controversial only to an administration that finds conservation and climate change inconvenient.

Most administrations at least make a show of keeping politics out of scientific decisions. Even President George W. Bush, derided in many circles for allegedly tampering with research, appointed eminent scientists to high positions. Most prominently, his science advisor, the late John H. Marburger III, was widely respected in the scientific community. The Trump administration hasn’t even bothered to appoint a science advisor, probably because his or her advice would only get in the way of its crude attempts to override scientific opinion with naked political bias.

Not in Mar-a-Lago’s Backyard

After cavalierly opening nearly the entire U.S. coastline to offshore drilling last week, the administration reversed course and excluded the state of Florida from drilling. It appears that the only reason for the change is that Florida governor Rick Scott asked Secretary Zinke for a favor.

Zinke’s about-face raises several questions. First, did the administration even bother to ask governors of the coastal states whether they wanted offshore drilling before making the initial decision? I know consultation isn’t Zinke’s strong suit—just look at his sham national monuments review—but he should have called Scott prior to inviting offshore oil rigs to plunder his state’s coastal waters.

Second, what makes Florida any different from the other coastal states, which also rely on tourism, fishing, and recreation? New Jersey, for example, brings in $44 billion annually in tourism dollars, much of which comes from visitors to the state’s beaches.

Tell Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to keep our coasts permanently off-limits to oil and gas drilling

Investigations, Investigations . . .

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general announced this week that his office will investigate administrator Scott Pruitt’s use of “administratively determined” jobs in staffing the agency. This little-known hiring loophole allows agency heads to hire people who have undergone neither the competitive hiring process required of civil service employees nor the confirmation process required for political appointees. “Administratively determined” positions are also exempt from certain ethics requirements. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that Scott Pruitt has exploited this loophole up to 30 times.

The most notorious beneficiary of Pruitt’s staffing chicanery may be Nancy Beck, a former employee of the American Chemistry Council, the chemicals industry association, who now serves as deputy assistant administrator at (wait for it) the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The New York Times reports that, since her appointment, Beck has made tracking the adverse effects of chemicals more difficult.

It’s not clear when the inspector general will get to this particular investigation. Things are busy, since the office is already looking into Pruitt’s $25,000 expenditure on a soundproof booth as well as his travel expenses.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Policy Primer

Fun fact: In most of the country, there’s a daily auction to sell energy into our power grids—with the least expensive sources winning. Also noteworthy: Coal’s not cheap.


Coal can never be king, even if Scott Pruitt plays the joker.

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Eight years after the BP disaster in the Gulf, the administration aims to relax the rules designed to prevent catastrophic explosions and spills.

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Not even the Republican governors who supported him are willing to get behind it.

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Muzzling scientists, scrubbing websites, attacking journalists: all in a shameful day’s work for our bought-and-paid-for EPA administrator. It’s time to stop him.

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The EPA administrator devalues our future, Congressman Bishop devalues our history, and industrialists devalue Rick Perry.

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The EPA chief asks corporations to run U.S. science policy, and a USDA nominee is caught up in the Russia scandal.

onEarth Story

The EPA chief’s new $25,000 soundproof booth, Ryan Zinke hates solar panels, and the Arctic refuge is in danger yet again.

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