The nomination of Kathleen Hartnett-White as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes to a critical stage in the Senate this week, and lawmakers would do well to get her commitment – before she is confirmed – to do nothing to disrupt renewable energy enabling policies that are clearly working.
The CEQ coordinates federal environmental efforts in the United States and works closely with agencies and other White House offices on the development of environmental and energy policies and initiatives.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is reportedly set to vote Wednesday on Hartnett-White’s nomination, and if she is confirmed for the job, she would be advising President Trump and supervising the implementation of his executive orders on energy and the environment. If approved by the committee, her nomination would then move to the Senate floor for a vote.
She would bring to the job a resume that includes serving as a member and chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Prior to 2001, she served as then-Gov. George W. Bush’s appointee to the Texas Water Development Board, where she sat until appointed to TCEQ.
Most recently, Hartnett-White has served since 2008 as the distinguished senior fellow-in-residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conserevative think tank.
A deeper look into the positions she has taken in recent years on energy and environmental issues while at the TPPF raise some serious concerns from renewable energy stakeholders, agricultural producers and rural America advocates. Many see Hartnett-White’s views as a failure to recognize the many economic and environmental contributions cleaner energy alternatives are making to farming operations and rural communities.
Just as recently as 2014, she called for the repeal of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which sets biofuel-blending requirements for our nation’s transportation fuel supply. The RFS has been a major economic driver for corn and soybean producers who gain additional value when growing and selling ethanol and biomass-based diesel feedstocks to renewable fuel producers.
Also while at the TPPF, Hartnett-White, a strong gas and oil supporter, consistently condemned the RFS, one time calling it “counterproductive and ethically dubious.” She stepped back from that criticism during her confirmation hearing before the Senate committee earlier this month. But many members of the committee, as well as biofuel advocates, question the sincerity of the nominee’s turnaround on the issue, suggesting her sudden embrace of the standard during the hearing was a ploy aimed at tamping down opposition to her nomination.
At other points during the hearing, committee members also raised concerns about her past characterizations of an ongoing – and what has proven to be an inevitable – shift away from fossil fuels like coal to clean energy power resources, including wind and solar. They pointed to some of her remarks on the transition, which she has called “green folly” and “a false hope.”
Seemingly lost on Hartnett-White is the value of biofuels and renewable energy to U.S. agriculture producers and rural economies. Since the RFS was adopted in 2005, the number of operational U.S. ethanol plants has grown from 81 in 2005 to 213 in 2016, while ethanol production has grown from 3.9 billion gallons to 15.3 billion gallons, a nearly 300-percent increase. More to the economic point, U.S. ethanol industry jobs grew 121 percent, from some 154,000 in 2005 to nearly 340,000 in 2016, most of those in rural communities. And the value of the industry’s output has quadrupled, growing from from $8.1 billion to $32.8 billion.
The U.S. renewable energy sector, like wind, solar and geothermal facilities, hold 16.3 percent of the nation’s power producing capacity and generate 14.4 percent of its electricity, with both numbers growing rapidly. The sector employs 770,000 people across the country, most in rural areas, in manufacturing, installation and other related jobs. And renewable energy has drawn more than $400 billion in capital investments since 2004, much of that going to rural areas, including hundreds of millions paid out to landowners for wind turbine siting lease payments.
Rural America and farmers have taken their economic hits over the past four years, with much of the downturn attributable to low commodity prices. Now is hardly the time to add even greater uncertainty by moving away from government policies and programs that sustain the growth of renewable energy and its benefits to the agriculture sector and rural America. Stakeholders should call on Senate committee members now, and tell them to get assurances from Hartnett-White that she will do nothing to interfere with what has been a successful and financially stable clean energy glidepath for today and the future.