Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom President-elect Donald Trump put forward Friday as his choice for attorney general, has questioned mainstream science on man-made climate change and attacked U.S. EPA for regulatory outreach.
It’s a sign, activists say, that he would likely back Trump’s promises to roll back President Obama’s climate policies.
The Department of Justice is not as high-profile on climate issues as EPA. But Sessions, if confirmed, could shape how the Trump administration defends and enforces environmental laws. In the Senate, Sessions has been a powerful critic of greenhouse gas regulations, calling the underlying climate science “deliberate misinformation.”
“I don’t know we know enough now to answer this question conclusively either way, but there’s been a lot of exaggeration, there’s been a lot of hype, and people are feeling the crunch already in their electric bills ... in our effort to stop storms that don’t seem to be going down, or to stop temperatures that don’t seem to be rising,” he said in a 2014 Senate floor speech.
A U.S. prosecutor and attorney general in Alabama before being elected to the Senate in 1996, Sessions serves on the Judiciary Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee. Accusations of racism during Sessions’ tenure as a prosecutor derailed a 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship, and he once again faces intense scrutiny from civil rights groups fearful about the protection of minority rights under the Trump administration.
But his views on climate change have also stoked concern among environmentalists, who have previously counted on the Obama administration’s Justice Department to uphold agencies’ climate rules and go after energy companies for wrongdoing.
The League of Conservation Voters gave Sessions a lifetime score of 7 percent. He has received nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of his Senate career, according to the OpenSecrets.org campaign finance database. He has repeatedly voted in favor of expanding drilling and energy production, a review of his record shows.
Sticking with congressional mandates
EPA has been a frequent target: Sessions voted to amend the Clean Air Act to eliminate EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, but the bill failed in the Senate.
“Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant. It’s a plant food, and it doesn’t really harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases,” he said in a 2015 hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where he mocked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. He accused John Holdren, senior adviser to President Obama on science and technology issues, of pursuing a “political agenda” after Holdren’s testimony on the frequency of droughts and hurricanes in February 2014.
Roger Marzulla, a Reagan-era assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said those statements suggest Sessions would wholeheartedly back Trump’s agenda to roll back environmental regulations like the Waters of the U.S. rule or the Clean Power Plan regulation to curb power plant emissions.
“The emphasis will be on making sure agency action complies with, or is authorized by, statutes passed by Congress,” he said. “It’s a particularly important message for the [Environment and Natural Resources Division] because agencies that tend to push the envelope in terms of congressional authorization are the ones that it represents, like EPA and several agencies in the Interior Department.”
Sessions has also sought to restrict the Justice Department’s investigations of people who oppose the mainstream science on climate change. In May, he signed a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch along with four other Republican senators—Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Perdue of Georgia and David Vitter of Louisiana—arguing that inquiries into private companies about climate change violate First Amendment rights to free speech.
“We write today to demand the Department of Justice (DOJ) immediately cease its ongoing use of law enforcement resources to stifle private debate on one of the most controversial public issues of our time—climate change,” they wrote.
That has environmentalists worried.
“If you wanted early and unequivocal proof that a Trump administration is planning to wage war on climate and climate activists, the nomination of Jeff Sessions is a good place to start,” said Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, which has come under fire for releasing documents related to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s public denial of climate change.
‘Playing a lot of defense’
Lynch has asked for more information on whether Exxon violated federal laws, but the federal Justice Department has not opened an official investigation. Muffett said he would not expect Sessions to pursue Exxon or other energy companies for any potential wrongdoing with regard to the climate.
Thomas Lorenzen, a partner at Crowell & Moring and a former DOJ lawyer defending EPA rules, said Sessions might have little influence over Trump’s rollback of climate regulations because any changes would have to come from the agency.
“Environmental policy is really set by EPA, and that is EPA’s call,” he said. The job of the Justice Department, and an Attorney General Sessions, would be to defend, not weaken, the endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, he said.
On enforcement, Sessions might take a similar approach to President George W. Bush to “ensure a level playing field” among companies, Lorenzen said.
“Where the DOJ has some real clout is in what is enforced of existing laws. Republicans tend to be law-and-order candidates; we do see them adopt certain types of enforcement initiatives,” he said.
Under Bush, that meant enforcing New Source Performance Standards even as they were under review, Lorenzen said. Because of Trump’s promises to eliminate or review standards like the Clean Power Plan or greenhouse gas regulations for light-duty vehicles, though, the future of climate-related enforcement could be murky. What that means for cases against companies like Volkswagen AG—which was found to have skirted emissions rules—remains unclear.
Sessions would also shape how the Trump administration would respond to civil lawsuits from environmental groups or the industry. Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that makes the Justice Department “the first line of Trumpian offense or defense.”
“Undoing rules takes time, but in the meanwhile, the Justice Department is going to have a lot of sway over how they’re depicting existing pieces like the Clean Power Plan,” he said. “They’ll probably have the first crack at dealing with whether there will be issues over the Dakota Access pipeline.”
He said he was concerned that Sessions could make deals with the industry suing over Obama-era actions—like Friday’s cancellation of offshore drilling leases in the Arctic.
“We’ll be trying to intervene, but with a Republican Congress and a president, I think we’ll be playing a lot of defense,” he said.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.