The Energy 202: Trump puts former BP oil spill lawyer in charge of environmental law enforcement

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, October 15, 2018

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill floats on the water as the sky is reflected in sheen on Barataria Bay, off the coast of Louisiana, in this June, 7, 2010 file photo. A high-stakes trial to assign blame and help figure out exactly how much more BP and other companies should pay for the spill began Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The office in the Department of Justice that sued BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will soon have a new leader. He is one of the very lawyers who helped defend the oil giant in court after that massive accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Jeffrey Bossert Clark to run the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Clark was approved by a narrow 52-to-45 margin, with only Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joining every Republican present to vote to confirm him.

Clark is the latest in a series of officials who have taken top environmental jobs within the Trump administration after previously working on behalf of the sort of businesses often criticized by environmentalists for pollution. They include former coal- and uranium-mining lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, currently in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, and another ex-energy lobbyist, David Bernhardt, now the No. 2 official at the Interior Department.

Clark will lead the office in charge of bringing cases against companies and individuals when they break either civil and criminal anti-pollution statues. He worked there as a deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration.

But more recently as a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, Clark sat on the other side of the courtroom as a defense attorney for industry.

After an offshore oil rig explosion in 2010 killed 11 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Clark defended BP in lawsuits from the federal government and Louisiana parishes.

The cases culminated in 2016 with BP agreeing to pay a total of $20.8 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws. The agreement was the largest civil penalty any company has ever paid under any U.S. environmental law.

Pointing to that record, Democrats criticized his elevation to be the Trump administration’s top environmental attorney after the vote.

“Although Mr. Clark does have experience in the environmental space, his record at both DOJ and in private practice shows him to have strong opposition to critical environmental protections,” Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

His Democratic colleague, Dick Durbin of Illinois, added on Twitter that Clark is “the wrong person for the job.”

Before Clark’s arrival, the Trump administration already curbed some environmental law enforcement efforts that Republicans considered a form of federal overreach. Earlier this year, for example, the Interior Department limited the application of a century-old law protecting birds. Under the administration’s new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the law would no longer apply even after catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Clark’s nomination also drew scrutiny from progressives due to his extreme comments about climate change. For example, Clark once compared President Obama’s efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to a Soviet-style takeover of the U.S. economy.

“It’s more about control, really, than about environmental protection,” Clark said while speaking on a panel in 2010.

“Its program of greenhouse-gas regulation,” he added, “is ​reminiscent of kind of a Leninistic program from the 1920s to seize control of the commanding heights of the economy.”

Clark seemed to know better than to repeat that rhetoric during his nomination hearing last year. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Clark for his views on climate change, but he offered little.

“When he was asked about that, he just vacillated,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “For that kind of position, it is important.”

Clark did, however, say he stood by a comment in which he called climate science “contestable.”

“I stand by it because there are clearly scientists and private entities who disagree,” he said.

The vast majority of scientists who study Earth’s climate agree that human activity is warming the globe. Just this week, a panel of international climate scientists issued a report saying that an “unprecedented” cut in carbon emissions is needed over the next decade to keep the planet from going 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, past preindustrial levels.