State Politics

Former Trump advisers want Pat McCrory’s environmental chief in the White House

Donald van der Vaart
Donald van der Vaart Submitted photo

The former head of North Carolina’s environmental agency might be nominated for a high-level job helping shape environmental policy for the Trump administration.

Donald van der Vaart, who led the NC Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and the NC Department of Environmental Quality under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, opposed many of the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions under former Democratic President Barack Obama.

But under the new Republican leadership of President Donald Trump, van der Vaart is under consideration as the next leader of the Council on Environmental Quality. The council is in charge of coordinating regulatory rules and approaches between federal agencies including the EPA, the military and more.

Trump has frequently said he wants to cut down on environmental protections, and last year he issued an executive order telling the council to speed up the federal regulatory process.

Van der Vaart similarly pushed for business-friendly reform at North Carolina’s DENR and DEQ during his time in charge from 2015 to 2017. Supporters said he was helping the economy; critics said he was hurting the environment. At one point, the Obama-led EPA threatened to take over regulation in North Carolina in a dispute over blocking people from challenging environmental permits.

Under McCrory and Van der Vaart, North Carolina joined other states in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan that Obama put forward as a way to regulate power plants’ emissions that contribute to climate change. The state criticized the regulations as a takeover of North Carolina’s power generating system. North Carolina left the lawsuit after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected.

So far, Trump hasn’t nominated him. But several influential insiders are pushing for him – including Myron Ebell, who led the Trump transition team’s environmental approach, and utility company lobbyist Mike McKenna, who is also a former Trump adviser – according to the energy trade publication E&E News.

After E&E News reported that momentum was building for his nomination, van der Vaart confirmed in a written statement to The News & Observer that he’s interested in the job.

“When I began as an environmental engineer almost 25 years ago, I never thought I might be considered for such an important role in protecting our nation’s environment,” he said.

Trump had previously nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, a political pundit from Texas, for the job. But the White House withdrew her nomination earlier this month after backlash in Congress. After that, E&E News reported van der Vaart has many of the views Republicans are looking for but hasn’t been as inflammatory.

“While his track record on climate is less explosive than that of Hartnett White — who said fossil fuels helped end slavery and called carbon dioxide the ‘gas that makes life possible’ — he still questions the role humans play in warming the planet,” E&E News wrote.

Trump has voiced many inconsistent opinions on climate change, sometimes saying it’s a real problem and other times saying it’s a hoax invented by the Chinese government. Recently, Trump has mostly said he’s skeptical of the science behind it. And many of the people he has appointed to top science jobs share similar views.

When van der Vaart took over the state’s top environmental job in 2015, he acknowledged that man-made climate change exists but said he thought it was being exaggerated.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of researchers and engineers who support clean energy, has called van der Vaart one of several people Trump has turned to who “share a similar disregard for established science.”

Van der Vaart, however, defended his record. In addition to his political experience under McCrory, he worked in non-political jobs for the state’s environmental agencies for 23 years. He has a law degree and a doctorate in chemical engineering.

“It is a great honor to be in this discussion while having the support of so many respected leaders who believe that my scientific and legal training along with my years of experience in environmental science and regulation may serve the administration well in furthering their goal of streamlining the recently announced infrastructure plans,” van der Vaart said.

Under consideration before

Just days after the 2016 elections, Van Der Vaart sent Trump a letter congratulating him on his victory and urging him to decrease the EPA’s regulatory power.

“We must put an end to the idea that more regulation is always good, and instead allow state and local experts to improve the environment,” the letter said.

He specifically urged the repeal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Plan, saying they were needlessly expensive for electricity companies, factories and farms.

Soon after, van der Vaart was rumored to be among the top picks to lead the EPA – although in the end that job went to former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has close ties with the oil and gas industry.

Van der Vaart instead remained at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, in a lower role. He prevented Cooper from firing him by demoting himself to a protected job after the Democrat defeated McCrory.

In 2017, van der Vaart’s name came up again as one of two people Trump was considering for the No. 2 job at the EPA, along with coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. In the end Trump nominated Wheeler, who so far has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Later on, van der Vaart joined a board of science advisors for the Trump administration.

That got him in trouble with his new bosses at the state DEQ, who didn’t support him joining the board. He was suspended with pay and then quit last November.