Whitehouse Remarks on the Nomination of Bernard McNamee’s for FERC Commissioner
Mr. President, I am here today to express my extremely grave concerns about the person we have just begun to move to a vote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He would be Commissioner McNamee if we were to confirm him. This is in an administration that has distinguished itself with terrible energy appointments—conceivably the worst. It is too important to our country to have an independent and reality based Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to allow an industry plant like Mr. McNamee—who will never be independent, who will always have his thumb on the scale for the vested interests—get onto the Federal Regulatory Commission.
In addition to the bad decisions he will make because he will be trying to throw decisions for the fossil fuel industry, he will also create an enormous amount of litigation because people who come before a Federal administrative agency are entitled to an honest look at their claims, and if the regulatory agency is incapable of giving them that honest look, that is grounds for appeal.
McNamee is a walking failure of any honest look at any question in which the fossil fuel industry—and specifically the coal industry—has an interest. Sadly, his position isn’t just a question of a personal failing; he comes out of a system, and I am going to take some time to describe the system he comes out of.
No one less than our late friend Senator John McCain was once asked in an interview: Why has it taken so long for Congress to address climate change? Katie Couric was the interviewer. She asked: Why has it taken so long, Senator?
Here was John McCain’s answer:
Special interests. It is the special interests. It is the utility companies and the petroleum companies and other special interests. They are the ones that have blocked progress in the Congress of the United States and the administration. That is a little straight talk.
The way these industries work is kind of interesting. They figured out pretty early on that if they are a big power company or a big coal company or any big fossil fuel polluter and they come forward into a debate and make their argument as ExxonMobil, as Koch Industries, as Murray coal, people will immediately discount what they are saying because people will understand that the companies have a massive conflict of interest, that they have the massive conflict of interest of wishing to continue to pollute for free. So they have set up this whole array of front groups to disguise that it is truly the fossil fuel industry whose hands are pulling our strings.
We came to the floor some time ago?—?a considerable number of the Democratic Senators—to point out this coordinated, phony, false-front, fossilfuel-funded operation, and we made the phony front group so mad that they actually sent a letter disputing that they were a coordinated group of phony fronts by putting all their phony names together on a single letterhead, arguing that they weren’t coordinated together in a letter in which they most obviously were coordinated together. That is how upset they were when the mischief they are up to was pointed out.
This was groups like Americans for Tax Reform; ALEC; Cascade Policy Institute; CFACT; Competitive Enterprise Institute; I love this name—the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which has nothing to do with Ben Franklin and even less to do with public integrity; Georgia Public Policy Foundation; Heritage Foundation; the notorious Heartland Institute, which distinguished itself by putting up billboards equating climate scientists to the Unabomber—classy group, that Heartland; the so-called James Madison Institute, which has nothing to do with James Madison. These groups love to steal the names of historic figures to try to give themselves a little bit of initial credence. There is also a John Locke Foundation—historians will know how important John Locke was to the founding of this country; the MacIver Institute; Kansas Policy Institute; Montana Policy Institute; NPRI; PRI; Pelican Institute; Rio Grande Foundation; Virginia Institute; and, of course, a Yankee Institute for Public Policy. This whole piece of public relations and propaganda machinery is an ongoing disgrace, and there are some folks who have been looking at it pretty hard recently and saying some pretty rough stuff about it.
I would like to start with two recent articles by Paul Krugman. He is no fool. He won a Noble Prize for economics. He begins by noting what everybody who studies this already knows:
Climate change poses a major threat to the nation, and some of its adverse effects are already being felt.
He goes on to say:
There are almost no good-faith climate change deniers.
I think he is accurate about that. I think there are almost no good-faith climate change deniers because, to use his phrase, ‘‘denying science for profit’’ has become such a constant activity, as shown by this whole array of phony, fossil-fuel-funded organizations.
He goes on to describe some of the history. ‘‘Climate denial’’—I am quoting here—‘‘actually follows in the footsteps of . . . the long campaign by tobacco companies to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking.’’
I have given several speeches about this on the Senate floor. The apparatus that the tobacco companies used to confuse the public about the dangers of tobacco morphed into a bigger, more cleverly hidden, and better funded apparatus but basically started with the same route that the fossil fuel industry took to confuse the public about the dangers of its product in the same way that the tobacco industry tried to confuse the public about the dangers of its product. The tobacco scheme was so fraudulent that they were actually found liable for fraud in Federal court—not just at the trial court level but upheld at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
He goes on to say:
Every one of the handful of well-known scientists who have expressed climate skepticism has received large sums of money from these companies or from dark money conduits like Donors Trust.
And, of course, it also flows through those phony front groups whom I described who wrote back to us to deny that they were coordinated phony front groups.
‘‘Climate denial is rooted in greed,’’ Paul Krugman continues, because it is paid for by the fossil fuel industry. Then he comes back the very next week with a second article, still on the same theme, bewailing the fact that the Republican Party has ‘‘committed itself to denying the facts on climate change; that it is now ‘‘completely dominated by climate deniers’’ and ‘‘hostile to science in general.’’
He describes the importance of climate denial and the weaponized fake news and the relentless propaganda as being?—?to use his words, ‘‘Climate denial, you might say, was the crucible in which the essential elements of Trumpism were formed.’’ Denying facts, repeating lies incessantly, manipulating the public debate, delivering weaponized fake news through unreliable sites, and poisoning the public debate with nonsense is how I would generally describe what he was describing.
Conspiracy theorizing has long been standard practice among climate deniers. And these are the organizations that propagate those conspiracy theories.
He goes on:
Most prominent climate deniers are basically paid to take that position, receiving large amounts of money from fossil-fuel companies.
If we fail to meet the challenge of climate change, with catastrophic results... it will be a disaster brought on by corruption, willful ignorance, conspiracy theorizing and intimidation.
And this question of corruption isn’t just coming from the left. There is a free market think tank called Niskanen Center, and Will Wilkinson from that institute just wrote a piece about what he called the ‘‘spiraling crisis of American corruption,’’ which includes the ‘‘failure to require financial transparency of those who would . . . fix our fates.’’ All of these groups hide who their donors are. There is no financial transparency because they are fronts for the fossil fuel industry, and if they reported all the money they got from them, their purpose as front groups evaporates. Creating, Will Wilkinson continues, ‘‘a class of rich and powerful miscreants who profit by gnawing away at the rule of law.’’
God forbid we should have real hearings on climate change, that thereshould be legislative rule of law. God forbid that we should get honest decisions out of EPA based on the science under rule of law. No. None of that. All of that goes under the wind so that rich and powerful miscreants of the fossil fuel industry can get their way.
Their pooled wealth, Wilkinson continues, can be deployed to keep them in the money, and that is what is going on, creating—and I think this is a really pointed phrase—in our country ‘‘a doom loop of corruption, distrust and institutional degeneration.’’
What our friend Senator McCain said was the mischief of the special interests in stopping climate action—this is how it is done—through secret money, dark money, front groups, phony propaganda, all backed up with fossil fuel industry political muscle.
It is sickening, and this guy McNamee comes smack out of one of these groups—the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation has received more than $31⁄2 million from Koch-related foundations—this is Koch Industries, not Coke the drink; I don’t want to disparage the wrong Coke—Koch Industries and Koch brothers-related foundations between 1998 and 2017—$31⁄2 million. It also received about $1.5 million from Donors Trust. Donors Trust is an entity that has no business purpose. It is set up to identity-launder donations. So if you don’t want somebody to know that ExxonMobil is funding you, ExxonMobil gives the money to Donors Trust, and Donors Trust gives the money to exactly who ExxonMobil told them to because it is donor directed, and now you can report: Guess what. I got my money from Donors Trust, not ExxonMobil. No business purpose. It simply sells transparency out, brings obscurity in, and is a dark money conduit for big special interests. It really is a disgrace. This guy comes out of this world. By the way, there was $100,000 from ExxonMobil also, because they don’t hide all their money, which goes into the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The last contribution from the Texas Public Policy Foundation to the Trump’s nominee pool was a woman named Kathleen Hartnett White, who did such a horrendous job in the Environment and Public Works Committee, showed such ignorance of environmental matters, and had no clue that carbon dioxide actually reacts chemically with water and is acidifying the oceans—that is science you can do in a high school lab. It is incredibly simple. I have done it here on the Senate floor with one of those bubbler stones for an aquarium and my own breath and our glass of water. To not know that carbon dioxide acidifies the ocean is appallingly ignorant. She also didn’t know how much climate change and the warming atmosphere was warming the oceans. Well, it is more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases that have gone into the oceans.
The oceans are warming at such a rate that if you took the explosive power of a nuclear weapon?—?the Hiroshima nuclear bomb—and converted 100 percent of that energy into heat, you would have to be setting off multiple bombs per second in our oceans to match how fast climate change is warming our oceans. You can measure that with thermometers. This is not complicated. It was too much for her. She couldn’t figure it out.
When oceans warm, they rise, because oceans expand. Warm water expands as it warms. This is basic physics—no clue. This you can measure essentially with yardsticks. You can measure it at the tide gauges that NOAA and the Navy have run in some cases for a century. This is the world he comes out of. This is the infiltration of the fossil fuel front groups and Koch Industries into what used to be legitimate institutions of government.
What really kills me is that McNamee, at one point talking about climate science, said:
There’s an organized propaganda campaign. . . . The problem is, it’s taken hold . . . and there is a lot of money behind this.
Well, he is describing something very accurately, but it is not the scientists all across this country, in every one of our home State universities, working on studying and teaching climate science. This is called projection. It is the rhetorical device where you take the sin that you are most obviously guilty of and immediately accuse your adversary of it, so that when you are caught, it looks like it is a tie of mutual criticisms. As Paul Krugman said in one of his pieces, ‘‘Projection much?’’ Indeed.
I will close by talking about this guy’s effort to prop up coal through these completely bogus power protection plans that have come out of the Department of Energy on his watch and that he has defended here. Even the Trump appointees to FERC threw these dumb things out. They were so bad, totally violating the Federal Power Act. But he was for them.
He has said that if you don’t preserve coal, you risk resilience and security on the grid. That is a question that FERC is going to be looking at. He ought to recuse himself on this. He has refused to recuse himself on this, but I will tell you there are people who say that it is actually working the other way.
Here is an article: ‘‘Powering into the Future: Renewable Energy & Grid Reliability.’’
In addition, renewable energy can strengthen the grid…contributing to capacity and resource adequacy, maintaining local voltage and frequency performance, minimizing grid disturbances, providing grid balancing services, and creating a more flexible and diverse generation fleet.
Do you think they are going to get a fair chance in front of this guy when they come to FERC?
Here is another headline: ‘‘Renewable microgrids can enhance grid resilience.’’
Here is another one: Against ‘‘physical risk and cyber-attacks… the electric grid have made renewable energy sources more attractive.’’ They are more attractive when you measure for protecting against physical risk and cyber attacks. They ‘‘can add a layer of protection from physical damage to the grid.’’ It is not coal.
Here is a report out of Texas suggesting that the State’s power production can be made more reliable by the addition of solar and wind renewables. Here is an article, headlined: ‘‘Solar energy is better than coal for national security infrastructure—says Department of Energy.’’ I would love to know how McNamee let this get by him. This is his Department of Energy telling the truth because nobody seems to notice.
‘‘Deloitte: The case for renewables has never been stronger’’—in part because ‘‘wind and solar power are now viewed as a solution to grid balancing,’’ says Deloitte, ‘‘while placing downward pressure on electricity prices.’’ Solar and wind are ‘‘placing downward pressure’’ on solar and wind prices, and they ‘‘have also demonstrated an ability to strengthen grid resilience and reliability and provide essential grid services.’’
So give me a break about this ‘‘coal needs to defend the grid’’ nonsense. That was cooked up probably by these phony-baloney front groups as an excuse to continue to sell their polluting product.
The Deloitte report itself, in the executive summary says: ‘‘[U]tilities are beginning to demonstrate how distributed, renewable generation in a microgrid setting can be a cost-effective alternative to traditional [transmission and distribution]’’ alternatives and protect the grid that way and ‘‘that [independently owned utilities] are exploring opportunities to enhance resilience through strategic renewable integration.’’
Integrating renewables strategically improves grid resilience. Here is the clincher: ‘‘Various [independently owned utilities]’’ will need ‘‘regulatory license to innovate.’’ ‘‘Whether those reforms will drive innovation fast enough to keep consumers’ lights on during future catastrophic weather events’’ is yet to be determined.
So here they are saying that getting renewables will help to keep people’s lights on, but how are they ever going to get a fair hearing from this guy who pretends, based on phony-baloney front group information, that it takes coal grants to keep the grid secure when all these reports show that just plain isn’t true? It is nonsense.
The worst of all and the closer for him was that he was on the 2009 transition team for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli when he was elected attorney general of Virginia.
I am really honored that our departing Senator from Florida (Bill Nelson) happens to be here on the floor today, because he and I are both graduates of the University of Virginia. There was a scientist at the University of Virginia named Michael Mann. He was a climate scientist. He is the guy who did what became known as the hockey stick graph, which showed carbon emissions and then boom, up it goes—like the blade of a hockey stick—at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
So how did the fossil fuel industry react to that? Did they engage him in scientific debate? No, they tried to get him fired. They sent their front groups out to attack his emails to try to get into his emails so they could mock him and set their trolls to work on him. Our university, the University of Virginia, had to fight Attorney General Cuccinelli and take him all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court where his bogus effort to harass and intimidate a climate scientist was finally, once and for all, thrown out by the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia. It was one of the lowest points in rule of law in the history of this country when an attorney general is using his powers of office to flack for an industry that supported him to try to damage the reputation and career of a climate scientist because the science was not showing what the industry wanted.
Their solution was to go after the scientist and try to ruin his reputation. It was a disgrace, and this guy was on his transition team. Give me a break. If we can’t do better than this, we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
Mr. NELSON: Mr. President, would the Senator yield for a question?
The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. LEE): Would the Senator yield for a question?
Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Of course.
Mr. NELSON: I say to my friend, the Senator from Rhode Island, would it be fair to sum up the Senator’s statement of what is happening to the planet by saying that the additional heat is prohibited from radiating out into space and is trapped by the greenhouse gases, 90 percent of which is absorbed by the oceans, and as the ocean water heats up, the volume rises, and thus, sea levels rise, and there is an increased heating up of the entire Earth’s temperature; is that a true statement?
Mr. WHITEHOUSE: That is a very true statement, and I would add that there are very few transcendent moments that take place here in the temple of mammon, where big special interests throw their weight around, but one of them that I have been privileged to be here for was the Senator from Florida, Mr. NELSON, talking about his time in space in a NASA spaceship and looking down on this Earth, not seeing red States or blue States, not seeing sectarian differences or differences among countries, not seeing national boundaries, but seeing us as the small globe spinning through the void that we are. It is a moment I will never forget.
When you look at that and think of that message that he brought and think that we are busily doing everything we can to ruin the balance of the systems upon which we depend because we will not say no to the biggest and most muscling and remorseless industry that probably has ever stalked the halls of this building, it is such a national tragedy that this would happen in the United States of America.
The whole world will suffer for our failing. The finger will end up pointing at us because the story will come out—and it is coming out already—about fossil fuel money and influence and their threats and hidden money and the front groups and the whole piece of stinking machinery in which they operate.
So the contrast between the Senator’s transcendent view of the globe from space and the foul politics of this industry that we experience here every day is one of the great discrepancies that is hard for me to take into my heart.
Mr. NELSON: Mr. President, would the Senator yield for a further question?
Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Yes.
Mr. NELSON: I say to the Senator from Rhode Island, since it is documented over time that the average annual temperature of the Earth is rising and we see in statistics the measurements of temperature, is it not true that scientists tell us that there is a temperature some 4 degrees-plus Fahrenheit more beyond which there is no return for the Earth continuing to heat? Is that a true statement?
Mr. WHITEHOUSE: That is a true statement.
The scientists of the world have more or less reached consensus that that 2 degrees Centigrade increase is one we do not want to go beyond because it could set in force further consequences that would accelerate the problem?—?for instance, large amounts of frozen Arctic methane or undersea methane letting loose.
We already see lakes that bubble in Canada and Russia from methane melting up through them. They are methane bubbles, not air bubbles. If that accelerates, there can be a feedback loop in which the input we have done releases more greenhouse gases, which, in turn, makes more greenhouse gases and more temperature and more greenhouse gases and up you go. Of course, a lot of that goes into the oceans, and nobody knows better than Florida what that is doing along your coasts to people’s property. So you don’t have to wait to hit 2 degrees Centigrade. Right now the safe opinion is that 1.5 degrees Centigrade is all we can afford. The risk that you are wrong is enough to justify trying to stop at 1.5 degrees Centigrade. Why not be safe when you are dealing with our planet?
Even well before then, in your State, we are seeing what is going on and we are seeing the daytime flooding. You and I have been walking around in boots on sunny days as the tide comes washing in where it has never been before—these king tides.
We have groups like Freddie Mac—which is not exactly a leftwing, green organization—warning that because of this, there is a significant chance of there being a coastal property value crash along our coasts as that danger of sea level rise backs into the insurance and the mortgage that you need to be able to buy a house. If you can’t insure your house or can’t mortgage your house—let me put it another way; if the next person to buy your house can’t get insurance or a mortgage, good luck getting a good price on your house. That is it. They predicted it could be as bad as the 2008 mortgage meltdown.
It is happening now, and we think that 1.5 to 2 degrees Centigrade that scientists say is a tipping point, with 2 degrees as a clear point of no return where these knock-on consequences will begin to move us out of control?—?we can’t stop it at that point.
Mr. NELSON: Mr. President, if the Senator will further yield just for a concluding statement, the Senator from Rhode Island has outlined exactly what is happening in the State of Florida with the rising sea levels, the intrusion of saltwater into the fresh water, the ferocious and highly intense hurricanes. He has also outlined the threat to property values and the normal financial commerce of building buildings and houses that now, along the coastline, may well be threatened in the near future.
I thank the Senator for his recitation this evening.
Mr. WHITEHOUSE: I thank the distinguished Senator from Florida.
He has been a particularly dear friend in our years here together. We sat next to each other on the Intelligence Committee, and I was able to see in that classified session his extraordinary skill as an examiner and cross-examiner of witnesses. He usually began by saying ‘‘I am just a country lawyer from Florida,’’ and everybody on the Intelligence Committee knew when they heard that, it was time to pay attention because something really good was about to happen. This country lawyer knew how to get to the bottom of things in a hurry.
His work to protect his home State has been nothing less than inspiring to me, and I appreciate it. If there is one thing we can say is hopeful in all of this mess?—?on the other side of this building, there are going to be gavels that go into the hands of a party that is not controlled by the fossil fuel industry, and there are going to be inquiries and subpoenas and questions and witnesses, and a lot of what I am talking about is going to become very apparent to the American people.
The coverup of the role of the fossil fuel industry and putting people like McNamee into these positions is going to be exposed.
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