Oklahoma Congressman James Bridenstine has no scientific background and denies that climate change is real. Steven E. Winberg has worked in the coal and natural gas industry for four decades.
But if the Senate confirms their nominations by President Donald Trump, Bridenstine and Winberg will direct multibillion-dollar federal research programs that could set the nation’s climate and energy agendas for years to come.
On Tuesday, the White House nominated four men to key science-related posts at federal agencies. Included are Bridenstine, for NASA administrator, and Winberg, for assistant secretary at the Department of Energy.
The nominations bring to 16 the number of people that Trump has tapped for science leadership roles at several dozen federal agencies. So far two of them have been confirmed by the Senate and two were appointed by Cabinet secretaries.
Another 28 top science positions remain vacant and Trump hasn’t nominated anyone to fill them yet, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Of the 16 nominees and appointees, seven have notable ties to the industries they would regulate or award federal research dollars.
Trump also on Tuesday nominated two men with extensive science backgrounds. Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet was nominated as assistant secretary of commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, which includes running the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s an oceanographer and has contributed to Defense Department assessment of climate risks to national security. Robert Behler, nominated as director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Defense Department, is the chief operating officer and deputy director of the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute.
Coal/gas executive would manage federal fossil energy research
Winberg has worked since the 1980s in coal and natural gas research and development, largely for private companies.
If confirmed, he will oversee the Office of Fossil Energy, which manages a network of National Energy Technology Laboratories and the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve – an emergency supply of fuel stored underground. The office also directs billions of dollars in federal funding to hundreds of research and development projects related to fossil fuels.
Winberg has deep ties to the coal and gas industries, as well as a key role in a controversial “clean coal” technology project. Currently, he is program manager for Battelle, a nonprofit, global technology research giant. Before that, he spent 12 years in research and development with Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy, a major underground coal mine operator and natural gas producer.
As a CONSOL executive, Winberg spoke out publicly and in congressional testimony in 2012 against the Obama administration’s efforts to cut carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying that the costs would cripple the coal power industry.
Winberg chaired a clean-coal effort called the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, the industry side of a public-private partnership initiated by President George W. Bush in 2003 and revived by Obama in 2010. Its goal was to build a coal-fired plant in Illinois that captures climate-warming carbon and stores it underground.
But plummeting prices for natural gas dampened investor interest in FutureGen and the project ended when the Energy Department withdrew its funding in 2015. More than $200 million in federal funds already had been spent, without proving that capture-and-storage could work.
Winberg did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on his nomination.
Climate-change denier tapped for NASA
Along with assessing the potential for manned spaceflights to Mars and missions by robots and probes to other planets, NASA is the federal government’s lead climate science agency. It is a global leader in using satellites to study Earth and its climate. That mission could be at risk if the Senate confirms Trump’s choice to run the agency.
A two-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, Bridenstine is a veteran U.S. Navy fighter pilot and former executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum. He has no deeper science education or experience to bring to NASA’s top job.
Bridenstine has served on the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee, where he has advocated a return to the moon as crucial to U.S. national security, particularly in relation to China’s growing geopolitical power and space ambitions. In 2016, Bridenstine introduced a bill to support private-sector space activities.
Bridenstine has criticized policies that would expand climate change research and regulations.
Trump in his proposed fiscal year 2018 budget wants to slash NASA’s Earth satellite budget by 22 percent, from $2.3 billion to $1.8 billion, a move that could cripple the agency’s climate science.
In a 2013 speech on the floor of the House, Bridenstine argued that natural solar and ocean cycles, not greenhouse gases, were responsible for rising global temperatures. He also disputed the fact that temperatures were rising. Nearly all the world’s climate scientists, including most experts at NASA, support the evidence showing that carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.
In that same speech, Bridenstine accused Obama of putting Oklahomans in danger by spending “30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warnings.” He demanded that the president apologize to the people of Oklahoma for what he termed “this grossness allocation” of taxpayer dollars. Politifact rated Bridenstine’s funding analysis as “mostly false.”
In 2014, Bridenstine voted “yes” on a bill that approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline and sought to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions from large power plants. He also voted “yes” on a measure to stop the EPA’s carbon emissions rules in 2015 as well as on a 2016 vote that cut funding for the Defense Department to reduce the climate impacts of its equipment purchases and planning.
In April, Trump signed a bill compelling the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to “rebalance” its funding allocations away from climate change science to weather forecasting research. Bridenstine was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
In response to a request for comment on Bridenstine’s nomination, his communications director, Sheryl Kaufman, said that he will not grant interviews before the conclusion of the confirmation process.
This story is part of a Reveal series on The (Un)Scientific Method, an exploration of conflicts between science and government. For more stories, click here.