The Senate Energy Committee leadership on both sides of the aisle is staffed up by former fracking industry lobbyists who worked as colleagues at same group
DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.
Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia is the new head of the Select Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And we’re going to talk about what that means today. We’re going to talk about Joe Manchin’s record when it comes to energy and natural resources and climate change with our new climate change investigative reporter, Steve Horn.
You may know Steve as a regular guest on The Real News Network. He’s going to now be reporting for us. And his latest piece for the real news is Senate Energy Democrats Hire Former Industry Lobbyist to Lead Staff. Thanks for being here, Steve.
STEVE HORN: Good to be here. Good to be in the studio.
DHARNA NOOR: So, before we talk about Manchin’s latest hires to lead the minority staff on the Senate committee, let’s talk a little bit about who Joe Manchin is. If viewers are watching this, if you know anything about Joe Manchin, you might know that he’s sort of famously bipartisan. He was one of the only Democrats to oppose same-sex marriage, and a lack of funding for Planned Parenthood. He also famously shot Obama’s cap and trade proposal in a campaign ad, and opposed Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulations. Talk a little bit about what Joe Machin could mean for climate policy.
STEVE HORN: Well, the biggest thing that Manchin is pushing today that makes him relevant, regardless of the Senate–if the Senate does nothing legislatively on climate change that moves across their desks, it still wouldn’t matter in terms of what the biggest thing he’s doing is, which has nothing to do, really, with the Senate. And that’s something that’s going through the Department of Energy right now, which he has heavily backed in his own home state, and that is the Appalachian Development Group’s proposal to create a massive petrochemical hub in the state of West Virginia. Petrochemicals are, of course, one thing that gas which is obtained from fracking could be created out of that. Mostly created right now in the Gulf of Mexico. But there’s a proposal right now by the petrochemical industry, by the oil and gas industry, to create the equivalent of that same infrastructure in Appalachia. And that would be headquartered in West Virginia.
And so that is–already has a lot of financing, and has $83 billion lined up from China, pretty much guaranteed, which is bigger than the entire GDP right now of the entire state of West Virginia, to put that into perspective. So it’s massive. And then–but what makes him relevant is–besides the fact that that’s already lined up; that’s been through the state government, and of course he’s at the federal level. At the federal level there is right now an additional $1.9 billion financing that they would like to get for that same project through the Department of Energy, through the National Energy Research Laboratory. And through that they just got kind of an ally; you know, a guy that Manchin has been speaking with, and has been part of lots of public forums together on this issue. So he’s a professor at West Virginia University–he was. His name is Brian Anderson. He was actually just named–looking at the revolving door–named to head up the National Energy Research Laboratory; the same one that will decide whether or not they get that close to $2 billion additional grant money to create that petrochemical hub.
So whether or not it’s a legislative thing or not, there has been legislative proposals, but they’ve been more symbolic. Manchin’s office has been working behind the scenes to help facilitate a lot of this stuff I just talked about over the past two or three years.
DHARNA NOOR: And we should say that, Steve, you did a report on this for DeSmog last week; if you’re interested in learning more, check it out. So, OK-
STEVE HORN: Two weeks ago, yeah. Before I joined The Real News.
DHARNA NOOR: Just before.
STEVE HORN: The last thing, yeah.
DHARNA NOOR: So, OK. Speaking of the revolving door, from the energy lobby, from the industry–from industry into the Senate sphere, let’s talk about who you uncovered that Manchin has hired to head the minority staff on this ENR committee.
STEVE HORN: Yeah, so the first organization, news organization, and the only one to have reported on it before The Real News Network, was Greenwire. They had simply reported on the fact that Manchin, as part of his leadership role in the minority for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had hired a woman by the name of Sarah Venuto Perez, and they talked about her lobbying background. And so that’s important. Her lobbying background is she was the head of federal governmental relations of the federal lobbyists for America’s Natural Gas Association, or ANGA, as they were known until recently. There was an acquisition of ANGA by the American Petroleum Institute, which I think goes show how powerful ANGA was.
DHARNA NOOR: The American Petroleum Institute, the-
STEVE HORN: Is the biggest lobby–yes.
DHARNA NOOR: Biggest oil and gas lobby in the country.
STEVE HORN: But ANGA was the voice of the fracking industry for roughly a decade before that, and had a lot of influence, in particular on the issue of the Halliburton Loophole, as it’s known, which allows for the industry, when they do fracking or horizontal drilling, not to disclose what chemicals they’re injecting into underground and potentially into people’s drinking water, the groundwater, if you rely on a well for your water, and lots of–which lots of people do in rural America. So ANGA was super–besides a bunch of other issues like methane emissions, and trying to stop any regulations of those; methane being a greenhouse gas that is more potent than even carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, which is the key timeline that we’re talking about if we need to do something on climate in that time period.
So ANGA has been huge on that. And you know, if you look at who was doing that, that’s Sarah Venuto Perez, if you look at her, which is what we did for this story. I looked at the federal lobbying disclosure stuff, and she was lobbying on those very things, like methane emissions. Like she was pushing to do “reform” of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which is kind of the main law that is used to create some protections at the federal level for projects that are being proposed to ensure that there are environmental protections, to ensure that there are protections for Indigenous population, water protections, air protections. The industry hates that bill, but it’s kind of like the state of environmental law in the United States of America. So she has been lobbying on thta. And then in her past career before ANGA, she had lobbied against even basic greenhouse gas regulations, lobbied for bills that would put multi-year hiatuses on regulations of those under the Clean Air Act. So she has a long track record from a variety of viewpoints of opposing pretty much doing anything to curb climate change from the perspective that oil and gas industry.
DHARNA NOOR: And more broadly even opposed the ability of the federal government to regulate anything, right? She supported–or she lobbied for SCRUB, is it?
STEVE HORN: The SCRUB Act. Yeah. So, the SCRUB Act, it’s an acronym for–it’s so long I have to read it–the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act. So that’s kind of like a one-for-one piece of legislation.
DHARNA NOOR: You put in one regulation and you take another one away.
STEVE HORN: And you take away another. Yeah. And so that’s something that she supported. That is a bill that in particular has been lobbied for for a long time by the Koch brothers and their network. It’s never really come true. But it’s becoming more and closer to becoming true. For example, President Trump, during one of his first months in office, did push forward an executive order saying that he supports that kind of thing. It hasn’t actually been realized, but it has motion under the Trump administration. That is something, another thing she lobbied for. And you have to remember we are talking about a Republican here, we were talking about a pretty committed Democrat. This is a woman who gave close to $3,000, $2,900 to Hillary Clinton for her 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton was–the biggest money given as a federal candidate was to Hillary Clinton, $11,000. So a good chunk-
DHARNA NOOR: From the American Natural Gas-
STEVE HORN: From employees, yeah, through their political action committee, or their PAC. And so one quarter of that amount of money came from Sarah Venuto Perez, given to that which went to Hillary Clinton. So she’s not–you know, she’s a conservative, I guess, in the traditional sense that she supports the oil and gas industry and no regulations, but she’s a committed Democrat.
DHARNA NOOR: But certainly not a Republican.
STEVE HORN: Yeah.
DHARNA NOOR: But the Republicans, of course, still have majority control in the Senate.
STEVE HORN: Yes.
DHARNA NOOR: So, talk about what’s happening on their end of this, what’s going on on the Republican side of this same–the ENR Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources-
STEVE HORN: Yeah, it’s noteworthy because it shows an interesting level of bipartisanship. I think it’s–and I’ll get into that in a second, because it has been realized through policy. But just looking at the personnel, they also have a communications director who in the past worked at the same time at America’s Natural Gas Association with Venuto Perez. So she was sort of more in the communications wing; Venuto Perez was the lead federal–they literally worked there.
DHARNA NOOR: So Venuto’s Republican counterpart-
STEVE HORN: Colleague.
DHARNA NOOR: In the ENR Committee-
STEVE HORN: Yes.
DHARNA NOOR: Was-
STEVE HORN: They were colleagues.
DHARNA NOOR: Her colleague at ANGA.
Which is, again, just to be clear, ANGA that has now merged with American Petroleum.
STEVE HORN: And I’ll say that there’s another piece of the oil and gas lobbying influence peddling industry known as the Independent Petroleum Association of America. The same woman, her name is Nicole Daigle, she–who is the communications director of the Committee on the Republican side, so that means for the committee as a whole because, they’re the majority–she was their lead federal lobbyist from 2012 through 2014. So I think that roughly overlaps when that same time period when Sarah Venuto Perez was lobbying for ANGA. So most likely they were lobbying for a lot of the same bills. They’re both–and they were the lead lobbyists for both of these two extremely influential trade associations in Washington, DC. And so now they’re both and very senior level staff positions in this influential Energy Committee in the Senate. Any energy-related bill has to go through this particular committee. And so those two will be working as senior staffers on those particular issues.
DHARNA NOOR: And what does it mean to work as a senior staffer on a committee like this? I think there’s–you know, there was quite a bit of reporting when Manchin was made head of this Select Committee about his record about, you know, the things that he–his political agenda, in a sense. But you know, what role does a staffer, does a senior staffer have in sort of shaping that political agenda, and shaping what, you know, what it’s possible for that Select Committee to accomplish?
STEVE HORN: Well, it’s a two-tiered thing. So I think a staffer shows the–I think the background of a staffer shows or gives signs of what the agenda of the politician will be. And that is because the senator’s an extremely busy person traveling, going from the floor of the Senate, going to meetings, doing all kinds of things. They rely a lot on the staff to actually do a lot of meetings with people, facilitating bills moving forward.
DHARNA NOOR: You should know; you worked on Capitol Hill, right, for a time?
STEVE HORN: I worked on Capitol Hill for–I was an intern. But yeah, that is exactly how it works. You know, the senators are just flying–you know, sometimes they have to go back to their districts. So their staff in DC, especially the senior staff, is extremely important on policy. And so in this case, when you’re the senior staffer of a committee, you’re going to be doing all of the policy work, basically. And you’ll report back to your boss. You know, he’ll kind of tell you what to do. But she’s the one that’s involved in all the day-to-day stuff on negotiating bills, or communicating with the industry; you know, because the senators are just so busy. They’re also a figurehead in their states, so they have to go to just kind of strange constituent events. So they rely a lot on their staff to do the actual work and the day-to-day office stuff that is involved with passing legislation or bills.
DHARNA NOOR: And I guess, you know, we should wrap up by talking about what this could mean for other kinds of Democrats. As you note in the piece, there’s sort of a bigger divide growing on climate change and the Democratic Party. You know there’s obviously this stronghold that the energy lobby that fracking, the fracking lobby, generally that industry has on a certain segment of the Democratic Party. But there is a new emerging wing of the Democratic Party. We’ve seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other freshman senators like Rashida Tlaib push the proposal for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, to phase out of fossil fuels within the next 10 years. They were actually pushing for nobody who ever received any fossil fuel contributions to be on that committee. What impact could this sort of wing being in control of this Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate have on their ability to get anything done to pass something like a Green New Deal? Obviously that–Nancy Pelosi in the House shut down the proposal for a committee on the Green New Deal, but they’re expected to–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other–other kind of [old] Democratic Party leader Ed Markey are expected to release a bill next week that would call for some of the same proposals that they were pushing for in that select committee.
STEVE HORN: Yes. So I think that the important thing to point out here is that not–maybe not the whole, this whole bill that we’re talking about, the Green New Deal bill, whatever other kinds of legislation comes out of that, a lot of it, if it involves energy, it’s going to have to go through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That means it’s going to go across Manchin’s desk. That means it’s going to go across Sarah Venuto Perez’s desk. So that’s what makes her relevant in this picture. That’s what makes Manchin relevant, because in the unlikely event that they do get some Republican support for this, which is unlikely, but you never know how things will play out in politics when deals are made. And maybe the deals being made will make the bill less of less powerful for combating climate change, we will see.
But with all that said, you still have Manchin there as probably someone who they’re going to have to get around or get through, depending on where things go. So that’s what makes it important for the Green New Deal, and for what transpires in the next several weeks or months, or I guess a couple of years, until the 2020 election.
DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, thanks for following the staffers for us. Obviously you will keep me posted, so we will keep you posted about what Steve continues to dig up going into this session. Thanks so much for being here, Steve.
STEVE HORN: Yep. Thanks for having me.
DHARNA NOOR: And go to TheRealNews.com, or probably below right now, and check out the full piece that Steve wrote for The Real News about Sarah Venuto Perez. It’s called Senate Energy Democrats Hire Former Industry Lobbyists to Lead Staff. I’m Dharna Noor. Thanks for watching.