Above: Doug Domenech, Kathleen Hartnett White, Susan Combs
At a climate conference in Washington, D.C., about a month after the presidential election, Brooke Rollins was in a celebratory mood. “We are winning, and a couple of years ago, it didn’t seem possible,” she said. “Most people thought it was going to be a really sad and dark and unfortunate time for the country, especially on [climate change]. There is great hope.”
Rollins must be sick of winning. The atmosphere has more carbon than any time in the last 3 million years, and many of her colleagues at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank in Austin, are headed to Washington, D.C. The longtime president of TPPF, Rollins has transformed the foundation from a fledgling group with a staff of three and $9,000 in the bank to a sprawling policy shop that employs more than 80 people, wields considerable clout at the Legislature and boasts a $10 million budget primed with money from the Koch brothers and fossil fuel interests. Buoyed by the election of President Trump and the mainstreaming of what were once fringe positions, the group now seems poised to wield greater influence nationally.
Since that December conference, Rollins has served as an economic advisor to Trump, and several TPPF staff members have been tapped for positions in the Trump administration, primarily to oversee environmental policy. Perhaps TPPF’s most high-profile export is Kathleen Hartnett White, a climate denier who led the organization’s environmental work and once argued that coal helped end slavery. She could soon be in charge of spearheading environmental policy in the White House.
Other TPPF alums embraced by the Trump administration include Doug Domenech, who has argued the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels,” and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who once compared endangered species listings to “incoming Scud missiles.” Domenech is an assistant secretary in the Department of Interior and Combs is waiting to be confirmed to a similar position at the agency. The foundation’s communications director, Caroline Espinosa, was hired by the State Department’s public affairs office.
“There’s great pride on behalf of my colleagues,” said Kevin Roberts, TPPF’s executive vice president. “Given that many of our colleagues are now servicing all Americans, that puts an extra spring in our step.” Roberts said many of the foundation’s most prominent hires by the Trump administration were in the energy and environmental policy arena because of his group’s “reputation as a top-notch academic institution” that has worked on “a lot of policy issues in energy and environment.”
But for environmental and public health advocates, TPPF’s rise to the national stage is worrisome. For one, White, Domenech and others have falsely argued that the science on climate change isn’t settled. Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said TPPF has had “total disregard” for the science on climate change. Unlike other opponents he’s faced who may agree on the science but disagree on policy to address climate change, TPPF has “messaging out of a different century,” he said.
“To now make it to the highest levels in the U.S. government means they can unleash their anti-environmental agenda on all Americans, not just Texans,” Metzger said. “It’s a new breed of anti-environmentalists taking power. It’s pretty scary.”