Kathleen Hartnett White’s vote to allow construction of a new coal plant 150 miles south of Dallas was the final straw for environmental groups. Mayors and officials in 24 cities and counties opposed the Oak Grove coal plant. Residents of Robertson County took out ads in the paper and held protests opposing it. And administrative law judges, who reviewed the plant’s air permit, told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that the plant’s pollution controls couldn’t “reasonably be expected to work.”
But in the summer of 2007, then-TCEQ Chairman White argued that Oak Grove’s owner, TXU Corp., was under no obligation to prove its pollution controls would work. The commission voted 2-1 to issue the air permit. For longtime environmentalists in the state, White’s vote typified her attitude on environmental issues — side with industry no matter what.
In the decade since the permit for Oak Grove was approved, coal has become uneconomical and the plant’s parent company, Energy Future Holdings, is now desperately trying to shed its tax obligations. White should have seen the writing on the wall for coal and listened to the researchers and citizens who warned her against greenlighting a coal plant, said Neil Carman, a former TCEQ inspector who now works for the Sierra Club.
“She acted like everything was rosy,” said Carman.
The Oak Grove vote was among the final decisions White made as chairman of TCEQ, which she led from 2003 to 2007. By then, environmental groups, tired of White’s industry-friendly practices, purchased a billboard near TCEQ headquarters in Austin urging then-Governor Rick Perry to “Get White Out!” and campaigned to ensure she wasn’t reappointed to the commission.
During her time at TCEQ, White was consistent in her positions: Trying to curb carbon emissions is “futile,” renewables are “a false hope” and “carbon dioxide has none of the attributes of a pollutant.” Among her stranger beliefs is that “fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery” and that the United Nations has “revealed themselves” as advocating for communism as “the only system of government which effectively would reduce carbon dioxide.”
White is reportedly now being considered to head the EPA. On Monday, Trump met with White as well as Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who is also in the running for the position. If she is passed over for the top job, industry watchers say she could be appointed EPA Region 6 administrator in Dallas or head of the Council on Environmental Quality in the White House.
The proposition of White being in any position with oversight of national environmental policy horrifies Texas enviros. White has been a particularly fierce critic of the “imperial EPA” and she falls within the fringe of climate deniers. During her six-year tenure on TCEQ, she rebuffed proposals to strengthen smog rules and repeatedly allowed large polluters to increase emission limits.
“Kathleen Hartnett White would be one of the biggest unnatural environmental disasters the nation has ever experienced if she were appointed to run the EPA,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the outgoing head of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen-Texas in an emailed statement. “She was a disaster as the chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
White, an avid breeder of Jack Russell terriers, grew up in Salina, Kansas. She attended Stanford, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in East Asian studies and comparative literature. Her early appointments were in the Reagan administration. She took a position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was later appointed as a special assistant to Nancy Reagan.
White comes from a long line of ranchers and told the Big Bend Sentinel in 2003 that her appointment to TCEQ was in part because she would “represent agricultural and rural Texas issues.” Her résumé includes a stint with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as director of private lands and the environment. Before tapping her for the TCEQ position, Governor Rick Perry appointed her to the Texas Water Development Board.
She now directs the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank that receives money from ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil and gas giants. The group has also received at least $220,000 from the Koch brothers since 2010, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
White did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. A spokesperson for the Texas Public Policy Foundation said she was unavailable until after the publication deadline.
Though Texas’ environmental community sees her as overly friendly to industry, White’s record could prove to be a significant advantage as she vies for the EPA job. Trump has promised to bring the “coal industry back 100 percent” and boost shale gas. He has also said the EPA is “a disgrace” and that he will “cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy.”
White’s experience in Texas could help the Trump administration meet those goals. TCEQ is the second-largest government environmental agency after the EPA, employing about 3,000 people in 16 regional offices during the time she was commissioner.
Among the most significant decisions during her time on TCEQ is her handling of a 2003 audit of the agency. The report found that for 80 enforcement cases TCEQ pursued between 2000 and 2003 the agency could have issues $8.6 million in fines, but instead it settled for about $1.6 million. As a result, “violators often have economic benefits that exceed their penalties, which could reduce their incentive to comply,” the report’s authors noted.
After a lengthy review process, when the agency’s executive director proposed reforming the penalty structure for polluters, White opposed the change.
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said White and the other commissioners “deliberately shifted resources” from the enforcement department to divisions in charge of permitting.
“That had the clear consequence of not having the resources to enforce the law when a company violates it and puts out dangerous pollution,” Metzger said. “Her greatest legacy at TCEQ was that kind of clear shift in priority.”
Metzger painted a dire picture of what White would bring to the EPA. He warned that with White in charge, the Trump administration could severely hobble the agency by slashing staff, shifting focus from enforcement to streamlining the permitting process. The agency could repeal Obama-era environmental protections and stack the Clean Air Science Committee with pro-industry science skeptics such as TCEQ Chief Toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who has questioned the link between ozone pollution and adverse health effects.
White has also gone head-to-head with the EPA. As chairman of TCEQ, White was responsible for approving the state implementation plan to reduce ozone levels. During the process, White advocated to loosen limitations on ozone-forming pollutants. She supported submitting a plan that would fail to reach the goals set by the EPA. When the regional EPA administrator pushed back, White chose to submit the plan as is.
As a think tank policy director, she has developed her anti-environmental bent to include the popular notion among conservatives that power ought to be devolved to the states. In a 2010 policy paper for a publication of the American Legislative Exchange Council, White wrote that “the originally envisioned relationship of cooperation between the EPA and state environmental agencies has been replaced by federal command and control over states.” The state implementation plan for air pollutants, for example, has given the EPA “essentially dictatorial authority over all state regulations remotely related to air quality.”
“She would be interested in seeing a collaborative effort with the states taking the lead” if White were to be appointed to lead the EPA, said Buddy Garcia, a former TCEQ commissioner who served with White and mostly voted in lockstep with her. The EPA would provide oversight instead of trying to dictate policy and “saying you’re going to do what we want,” he said.
“She took her job very seriously and looked at the science and whether the rules were achievable or not,” Garcia, who now works as a consultant on energy and environmental issues, said. “She’s a very sharp lady.”
White, however, does not accept basic established science. She believes that climate change is the “dogmatic claim of ideologues and clerics” and has blamed natural variability and solar activity for increasing temperatures. On smog, she has pointed to a study that found hospital visits for asthma in Texas decreasing during the ozone season as evidence to abandon stricter smog regulations. And she has claimed that there have been virtually no cases of fracking contaminating water sources.
Trump’s stated views on climate change have ranged from calling it a Chinese-perpetrated hoax to, more recently, saying there might be “some connectivity” between climate change and human activity and that he is keeping “an open mind” on the Paris climate accord. If Trump does decide to take a hard-line against climate science, White would seem to be a perfect pick.