Politics

This Biden nominee with Alaska ties has worked for top offshore wind firms. Now he’s poised to help oversee the industry.

Tommy Beaudreau spent the Trump years as a corporate lawyer working for energy companies of all stripes, including many of the developers that are key to the Biden administration’s goal of building thousands of offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean.

Beaudreau is now poised to be confirmed as the No. 2 official at the Interior Department, which will decide whether these projects should receive federal permits to start construction after evaluating their environmental impact. Although some environmental groups have criticized him for his corporate work for fossil fuel companies, it’s his private practice work for a wide swath of the offshore wind industry that may force him to sit out key decisions in an area that’s central to President Joe Biden’s climate goals.

Interior has been reviewing 14 wind farm proposals for projects from Maine to North Carolina, which could help meet Biden’s pledge to generate 30 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind by 2030. Beaudreau has represented companies behind 10 of those projects while working as a partner at Latham & Watkins, according to his financial disclosure form. They include the Vineyard Wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., which received federal approval last week to become the country’s first large-scale offshore wind farm.

“If there are pending applications, he’ll need to stay out of it,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “At the end of the day, you want the public to respect the integrity of the decision-making process.”

Beaudreau has signed an ethics agreement pledging to recuse himself from matters relating to his former clients for two years, as required by law. He has years of experience regulating the nation’s offshore waters, serving as the first director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management during the Obama administration. The agency oversees permitting for offshore oil and gas drilling as well as wind projects.

It is unclear whether Beaudreau, who declined to comment, will curtail his involvement in decisions involving the wind industry more broadly. Current ethics rules require federal officials to recuse themselves from “a particular matter involving specific parties” they have represented in the two years before joining the government. Decisions including lease sales and establishing wind development zones could fall into this category.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, said in a phone interview that Beaudreau “more than likely is allowed to participate” in such policy deliberations.

“The question still is, depending on the makeup of this industry, is it a best practice for him to participate, or does it cast an appearance of a conflict of interest?” Amey said, adding that one way to address the issue would be for the department to disclose details about Beaudreau’s work in this area.

“Full transparency here would be copies of his calendar and meetings that he’s having to show his former clients aren’t receiving an unfair advantage that isn’t available to other competitors in the industry,” he said.

[Interior Department becomes battlefield in fight over response to climate change]

Beaudreau is likely to be confirmed as deputy secretary during a vote of the full Senate, which could come as soon as this week. Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gave him strong bipartisan support, voting 18 to 1 to advance his nomination. Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., described Beaudreau in a statement as “supremely well qualified for the job” and said he thinks “senators on both sides of the aisle will find that he is someone they can work with.”

Oil and gas companies, as well as coal firms, are among the 35 clients listed on Beaudreau’s financial disclosure form. He also worked on two projects in Saudi Arabia, including Neom, a futuristic desert city being pushed by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“He is a very conflicted person by any standard, and it’s going to be problematic with him being the second most powerful person at Interior,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “We don’t think he should be there.”

Interior declined to comment on the matter.

Many environmentalists attacked David Bernhardt, Donald Trump’s first deputy interior secretary, for representing agricultural and fossil fuel interests as well as conservative groups before joining the department in 2017. He carried a card listing all his former clients in his pocket, as a way to demonstrate his adherence to federal ethics laws, and later became interior secretary after Ryan Zinke’s resignation in 2019.

The No. 2 position at the Interior Department is a critical one: The deputy secretary is the only other person aside from the secretary who oversees the entire department.

Beaudreau wasn’t the Biden administration’s initial pick for the job. In March, the White House withdrew its first candidate for the position, Elizabeth Klein, after centrist senators such as Manchin and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, objected to her advocacy to curb fossil fuels. Klein still serves as an adviser to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Beaudreau attended Service High School in Anchorage but left Alaska after oil prices slumped in the 1980s and his father lost a job working for a North Slope oil company.

[2013: Former Alaskan leads listening sessions to start the process for Alaska-focused Arctic drilling rules]

Several environmentalists have praised Beaudreau’s record as a conservationist and his ability to listen and compromise. He served as the Interior Department’s point person on Alaska while he was then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s chief of staff during the Obama administration. He helped establish protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the northern Bering Sea, as well as restrictions on drilling in other coastal waters.

Beaudreau “demonstrated a strong commitment to bringing diverse groups of people together to ensure that our public lands are managed for multiple uses to benefit wildlife, outdoor recreation, clean energy, and local communities,” Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

In a letter to senators endorsing Beaudreau’s nomination, Jewell praised his “ethical compass, deep understanding of the law, and ability to bring people of different perspectives together to find common ground.”

But others view him as sympathetic to the fossil fuel industry. At Latham & Watkins, after he left government, Beaudreau worked for such firms as coal mining company Arch Resources, oil and mining firm BHP, and oil major Total.

“What I worry about big picture is that he is being put in there to dampen Secretary Haaland’s ability to really crack down on fossil fuels and make Interior a more responsible steward,” Hartl said.

The offshore wind developers who are poised to start multibillion-dollar construction projects in coming years have won praise from many climate activists, although some environmentalists have voiced concern about potential harm to birds, fish and marine mammals such as the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species.

Interior has established a process so career ethics officials can vet potential conflicts involving Beaudreau and other appointees, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. Some current Interior officials - including Nada Wolff Culver, the Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director of policy and programs, and Principal Deputy Solicitor Robert Anderson - worked as advocates before joining the department.

“You can go from a job in an industry or advocacy group and still be able to work in government,” said Jan Baran, a partner at the law firm Holtzman Vogel. “It’s just that you’ll be limited in what you can do, because of the conflict-of-interest rules.”

Beaudreau’s disclosure form shows he worked for five firms - Avangrid Renewables, Vineyard Wind, Ørsted, Dominion and EnBW North America - that are central to the Biden administration’s offshore wind expansion plans.

The Danish firm Ørsted, for example, has applications before the Interior Department for five major wind projects -- Revolution Wind, South Fork Wind, Sunrise Wind, Ocean Wind and Skipjack Wind Farm -- that span swaths of ocean from Maryland to Rhode Island. Together, these projects would amount to nearly 3 gigawatts of electricity, or 10 percent of Biden’s 2030 goal.

Beaudreau’s disclosure does not specify the work he did for Ørsted or other companies beyond “legal services.”

A spokesman for Ørsted declined to comment on Beaudreau’s role with the company.

Beaudreau and other lawyers at Latham & Watkins began working with Avangrid Renewables -- a part of the Spanish energy company Iberdrola -- on “environmental and permitting matters” relating to the company’s Kitty Hawk wind project off North Carolina in late 2018, Avangrid spokeswoman Susan Millerick said.

Beaudreau also provided “legal support for similar matters” for the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project that the Interior Department approved last week in what Haaland described as “a significant milestone in our efforts to build a clean and more equitable energy future while addressing the climate emergency.”

Avangrid Renewables is one of two companies partnering on that project; the other is Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners out of Denmark.

“We congratulate both the Interior Department and Tommy on his nomination,” Millerick said. “He’s an extremely talented professional in offshore wind matters and will be an excellent, high-quality addition to the Interior Department’s leadership team.”

Millerick added that as for other projects brought before Interior by former Beaudreau clients Avangrid or Vineyard Wind, “Tommy would have to answer as to recusing himself.”

Dominion Energy in Virginia is listed as another Beaudreau client. The company operates one offshore wind pilot project, consisting of two turbines, and plans to build a larger project nearby off the coast of Virginia Beach.

The company said that Beaudreau “has not represented Dominion Energy on any matters before the Department of Interior.” Instead, Latham & Watkins has provided legal services “on matters involving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” company spokesman Jeremy L. Slayton said in a statement.

“As part of these services, our lead counsel at Latham & Watkins received limited legal support from Mr. Beaudreau,” he said.

Another Beaudreau client, EnBW North America, a U.S. branch of the German utility, has proposed building an offshore wind farm called Castle Wind 30 miles off Morro Bay in California. The company is also pursuing projects in the new offshore lease area established by the Interior Department called the New York Bight, according to its website.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

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