News broke on Friday morning that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden is crafting a “middle ground” climate policy that will seek to restore Obama-era environmental protections, focusing on rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, increasing fuel efficiency, boosting natural gas, and deploying carbon-capture technology.
But there’s already a potential conflict of interest: Former Obama adviser Heather Zichal, who recently occupied a lucrative seat on the board of the Texas-based liquified natural gas (LNG) company Cheniere Energy, is now an “informal adviser” on climate change policy to the Biden campaign. The company has profited in recent years as the U.S. has increased its liquified natural gas production, something the Obama and Trump administrations have encouraged.
In 2013, while a climate and energy staffer in Obama’s White House, Zichal met with Cheniere officials twice, according to DeSmog. The year before, Cheniere became the first company to receive an LNG export permit from the Obama administration—and the first to receive such a permit in 50 years. She joined the Cheniere board in 2014. According to investigative reporter Nick Surgey, Zichal earned a total of nearly $1.1 million from compensation and stock while a Cheniere board member from 2014-18.
The Biden campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.
Cheniere’s Sabine Pass facility in Louisiana was one of only two U.S. LNG exporting operations in 2018. Exports are increasing rapidly, as President Donald Trump’s administration has slashed environmental protections. When Trump visited Poland in 2017, he praised the nation for its first LNG import from Cheniere.
The burning of natural gas emits less greenhouse pollution than burning oil, but during the full cycle of natural gas extraction, transmission, and use, it contributes significantly to the air pollution that is hastening climate change, and it can pollute groundwater.
Cheniere Energy is a regular donor to Republican politicians. In the 2018 election cycle, roughly 75% of the political contributions by the company PAC and individuals who work there went to GOP candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2016, the most recent presidential election cycle, 63% of the contributions, or nearly $230,000, entered GOP campaigns.
Zichal is reportedly seeking the advice of former Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Frank Verrastro, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSI) energy and national security program.
As MapLight reporter Andrew Perez pointed out on Twitter, CSI is in the middle of a multi-year, $5 million grant from ExxonMobil and received additional general support in 2017 from Exxon, Chevron and the Saudi-based oil company Aramco. CSI once had then-Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson on its board.
As the Democratic Party was creating its policy platform in 2016, Zichal slammed Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who had just concluded a presidential campaign and appointed several members of the platform committee, and his supporters for their stance on climate policy. In an op-ed, she compared Sanders’ supporters to Tea Party activists and called Sanders’ supporters’ environmental goals “myths and deceptions.”
“We can’t defeat them in November if we’re stuck fending off myths and deceptions from within,” she wrote. “Sanders environmental advocates who spout voter-depressing untruths will have carbon on their hands if they cost us this election.”
Sanders, who is running for president again, supports the ambitious Green New Deal plan and signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. He responded to news of Biden’s climate plans on Friday afternoon.
Fellow Demoratic presidential candidate Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington tweeted on Friday, “Climate change is an urgent crisis. ‘Middle-ground’ approaches and half measures won’t cut it.”
Candidate Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), whose Twitter account is typically run by young New York progressives, also chimed in.
Zichal left her Cheniere position in mid-2018 and is currently vice president of corporate engagement at The Nature Conservancy. Her biography on the group’s website does not mention her ties to Cheniere. The Nature Conservancy hosts a business council, meant to “encourage and help companies incorporate the value of nature into their business decisions,” that includes oil giants BP and Chevron and Duke Energy, an energy utility that produces LNG and distributes gas to customers.
As of 2014, The Nature Conservancy derived income from a Texas oil well it owned.
Environmental activists are not pleased with Biden’s plans. Sunrise Movement Co-Founder Varshini Prakash called Biden’s approach “a death sentence for our generation.”
“Biden’s betting that a retreat to mediocrity and tepid policy making will garner him the Democratic nomination, but climate change is a top issue in this election and voters expect candidates to put forward solutions in line with the crisis,” Prakash said in a press release. “All this approach will do is lose young voters and throw communities of color and working people into chaos and violence, leaving my generation to deal with a broken economy and global society.”
The Sunrise Movement worked with freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on her Green New Deal proposal and will join her, Green New Deal Senate sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), author Naomi Klein, and others at a May 13 event at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Over the course of his lengthy congressional career, Biden’s campaigns took only a small amount of donations from political action committees in the energy and natural resources sector, and he earned an 83% rating on energy policy from the League of Conservation Voters.
Biden’s climate plan will encourage fuel efficiency. This appears to be a change from some of his past stances on the matter, as he voted against bills in 1999 and 2003 to increase fuel economy standards on light trucks, among other anti-environmental votes, such as one on a 2005 farm conservation bill.
The former vice president, who is currently topping most Democratic primary polls by large margins, appears happy to appease the political center and stick to Obama-era energy policy stances that many scientists and environmental advocates view as deeply insufficient to tackle the grave threat that climate change poses to the nation and the planet.