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  December 12, 2016

The Billionaire Fossil Fuel Investor Behind Trump's EPA Pick

DeSmogBlog's Steve Horn says Trump's victory represents the political triumph of climate science skepticism and its powerful influence in the coming administration
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Full Episode

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The Billionaire Fossil Fuel Investor Behind Trump's EPA Pick
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Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based Research Fellow for the climate/energy website, a contributing investigative journalist for TYT Investigates and contributing editor for Counterpunch Magazine. His writing has been published by Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, The Guardian,Vice News and beyond.


KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I'm Kim Brown. With new key appointments to his upcoming Cabinet, President-elect Donald Trump appears to be moving fossil fuel interests front and center in his upcoming administration. Seen here with a backdrop of Virginian miners, Trump demonstrates his support for fossil fuels and the coal industry during his presidential campaign.

DONALD TRUMP: We're gonna put the miners back to work. We're gonna put the miners back to work. We're gonna get those mines open. Oh... coal country!

KIM BROWN: So, after the election, Trump said that he would keep a "open mind on the issue of climate change." But on Sunday, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, Donald Trump told Chris Wallace, "Nobody really knows if climate change is real."

With us to discuss what these new appointments mean for the United States energy and climate policy, we're joined by Steve Horn. Steve is a Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and he's also a freelance investigative journalist whose work is featured in The Guardian, The Nation and Truthout. He joins us today from Indianapolis. Steve, thank you so much for being here.

STEVE HORN: Good to be back. Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: Steve, there's a lot to unpack here. But, first, talk to us about Scott Pruitt -- who he is and what does it mean for him to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency?

STEVE HORN: Well, a good place to start with Scott Pruitt is that he basically has the same exact climate change position as Donald Trump basically put forward in his Fox News interview, and that is that there's still a lot to be learned about climate change and whether or not humans caused it, therefore it's not too much to worry about and, you know, the climate scientists, what they say is probably exaggerated and so everything is okay. We should just move forward with producing as much fossil fuel as possible in the United States and around the world.

So, Scott Pruitt is sort of symbolic of who Donald Trump has surrounded himself with, both on the campaign trail for his climate and energy team and now, after being elected President, who he has surrounded himself with for his transition team. And so, it's been people... you know, you have to look at who helped pick Scott Pruitt, and that is people like Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is a well-known climate change denier. CEI ... was funded by Koch Industries; Donors Trust, which is just a dark money trust fund that is funded by the likes of, again, Koch Industries. Used to be funded by Exxon Mobil, etcetera. So, Myron Ebell has been the head of the EPA transition team, picking... was instrumental in picking Scott Pruitt.

Scott Pruitt himself, someone who sued the EPA on behalf of his state -- he's an Attorney General -- in the Obama-era(?) EPA for its coal regulations and for its methane regulations. So he's someone who went unopposed in 2014 running for Attorney General, still ended up raising over $300,000 from the energy industry, even though he didn't have an opponent. So, I think his allegiances are clear: he considered himself someone who worked for the oil and gas industry as the Attorney General of Oklahoma. That's sort of a central hub of fracking and of oil and gas in the United States, historically, and at present. So that's sort of what we're looking at with Scott Pruitt. Someone who has no background in science, someone who has no background in working for any environmental protection agency at all, someone who used to be a state level Senator in Oklahoma, then became Attorney General, and now he is the Head of EPA of the United States if he gets it through by Congress.

KIM BROWN: Yeah, his selection definitely makes me wonder how can someone be tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency if they themselves are not interested in actually protecting the environment. So, Steve, talk to us about what the vetting process is for this pick because, as you wrote about in your article, "The Billionaire Energy Investor Who Vetted Trump's EPA Pick?", has a long list of EPA violations. So how did we get Scott Pruitt to head the agency designated to protect the environment, when that's not really seemingly his thing?

STEVE HORN: Right. So, I mentioned Myron Ebell, and that's obviously crucial, but I think that the part of the story that's been lost, that has really only been reported on by the business press is that in actuality, the 26th richest man on the planet and a long-time business partner of Donald Trump, Carl Icahn, who helped him when he went bankrupt at the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel in Atlantic City. Carl Icahn was actually doing interviews of all of the finalists for the EPA position. That was reported on by CNBC, that was reported on by The Wall Street Journal. CNBC actually reported that he did four interviews with Scott Pruitt and interviewed all of the finalists, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

And, as you said, he has business ties nationally, looking at what his investments are in for Icahn Enterprises, and entities such as Cheniere, which is a gas exporting company, has terminals on the Gulf Coast, Sabine Pass LNG, for example, which was approved by the Obama Administration in 2012. He formerly... or he still owns a small stake in Transocean, which was partially responsible for the BP oil spill back in 2010. And, importantly, in this case, actually has business stakes in Oklahoma, going back to Pruitt connection, owns another company through the Icahn Enterprises holding company known as CVR Energy, which also has a subsidiary called CVR Refining. And through that they own a big refinery in Oklahoma which does refining of oil and gas products including tar sands from Alberta, including tar sands that flow through the original Keystone I Pipeline that was approved by the Bush Administration in 2008.

So, and looking at that actual refinery in Oklahoma, it has been tagged with several EPA violations. If you look at EPA data as very high levels of carbon emissions, the equivalent of one quarter of the year of an average coal-fired power plant. And then looking at its methane emissions, also very high levels, plus several other carcinogens.

And so, also through another company that he still owns a stake in -- 4.5%, Chesapeake Energy, which is also based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That's another company that was actually tagged with one of the highest amounts... looking at the monetary level, for an EPA violation several years ago, for water contamination in West Virginia, for one of Chesapeake Energy's subsidiaries, Chesapeake-Appalachia. So, this is a guy who was doing the actual interview of Scott Pruitt, who himself has been tagged with lots of EPA violations, and said when Pruitt was hired, went on Bloomberg, and said, sort of in this ironic twist, said the hiring of Pruitt is a "breath of fresh air." So looking very ironic given what goes on at his refineries and at his various holdings throughout the United States. So that's the guy who interviewed the head of the EPA. He's a long-time Trump business partner and one of the richest men on the planet.

KIM BROWN: I'm sure it was the most fabulous, most amazing vetting ever.

STEVE HORN: Yeah. As Trump would put it, yes.

KIM BROWN: But, Steve, you know there has been some discussion of people associated with the Koch brothers as you just mentioned. Koch brothers-founded groups moving to be featured prominently within the Trump Administration. Tell us about one of those groups, the Heritage Foundation, and the event last week.

STEVE HORN: Yeah. The Heritage Foundation, basically had what amounted to a celebration event. They didn't... it wasn't planned, they didn't know who was going to win the presidency, but after Trump won, and so it's a month after the election, and some of the biggest names in the climate denial space -- whether that's Senator James Inhofe, whether that's... several others. I could go on and on, the list is in the article I wrote. But all of the most prominent climate change deniers in the United States, more or less, were there, and basically did a victory lap about the fact that Trump had won and so now this is a triumph of skepticism around climate science, more or less. Everyone talked about how it would be to the benefit of either the coal industry, the oil and gas industry or to the benefit of being more skeptical of climate change and scientific institutions such as the EPA. So it was almost a... I watched it all day live streamed, and it was kind of a frightening event to watch. Because it's one of those things that it's not on the fringe anymore. These are the people who have now a lot of influence over President Trump and his administration both in the picks over who will consist of that administration, but also going forward in the policy that the administration makes starting on January 20th.

KIM BROWN: So now there's talk about Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson being chosen as Secretary of State. Now, could this become a clear relationship of one petro-state working with another, because there's been a lot of reporting, at least recently, about Rex Tillerson's relationship, not only to Russia, but other petro-states around the world. What should we make of Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State?

STEVE HORN: Well, if he is actually picked, which is still a little bit up in the air, although there have been a couple of sources that did tell NBC News, and then it became big news nationally, that he is the pick. The Trump Administration still hasn't officially announced, but yeah, he is the CEO of Exxon Mobil who has immense business relations with Russia that have been put on hold due to the sanctions that were placed on Russia because of the incursion in Crimea by Russia, and so we're looking at -- Exxon actually owns four times the amount of land acreage -- it doesn't own, but they lease four times the amount of land acreage in Russia as compared to what they hold in the United States, and they have immense holdings in the United States through a subsidiary XTO, which is the biggest producer of oil and gas in the United States through fracking. So we're talking about a lot of oil and gas, both onshore in Siberia and then offshore in the Arctic as a joint venture with Rosneft that was announced several years ago in which Rex Tillerson signed the documents and stuff alongside President Vladimir Putin. So, that's going on, the political story there, with all the tensions with Russia and the speculation that may have intervened in the US election, which is still yet to be determined, and it's being investigated by Congress and other agencies. But that's one piece of it.

Then the other piece, of course, that Exxon Mobil is the very biggest oil and gas producer in the world, and they have not only holdings in Russia, but basically with every country that the State Department has relations, more or less, Exxon probably touches... more than any country that has oil and gas, Exxon has close contact with. So that's almost the bigger story here, plus the fact that if all that oil and gas was tapped into that'd be frightening from a climate change perspective. Plus, let's not forget that the State Department is the agency that does show up at the United Nations Climate Change Conventions. Now that could be overseen by a guy like Rex Tillerson whose company has a long track record of funding climate change denial, although the company has sort of become a little bit more friendly towards talking about climate change and doesn't have an overt position of denial, still, more or less, doesn't really matter what they say about climate change. They're producing a whole heck of a lot of carbon that is, of course, leading to a potential climate disaster. So that's sort of what's at stake here. It's still unclear whether or not he'll be chosen. But even if he is not, the fact that he's met several times with Donald Trump means that his company now has an extremely good relationship with the Trump Administration going forward and will have a lot of influence over the decisions they make.

KIM BROWN: Donald Trump has vowed to make America great again. The Earth? Not so much. We'll see how that goes. We've been speaking with Steve Horn. Steve is a Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog. He's also a freelance investigative journalist. His work has been featured in The Guardian, The Nation and Truthout. Steve, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.

STEVE HORN: Great to be back on. Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: All right. And thanks for watching The Real News Network.




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