Heather Zichal, former Obama White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, may soon walk out of the government-industry revolving door to become a member of the board of directors for fracked gas exports giant Cheniere, who nominated her to serve on the board.
The announcement, made through Cheniere's U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Form 8-K and its Schedule 14A, comes just as a major class-action lawsuit was filed against the board of the company by stockholders.
In reaction to the lawsuit, Cheniere has delayed its annual meeting. At that meeting, the company's stockholders will vote on the Zichal nomination.
The class-action lawsuit was filed by plaintiff and stockholder James B. Jones, who alleges the board gave stock awards to CEO Charif Souki in defiance of both a stockholders' vote and the company's by-laws.
Souki — a central character in Gregory Zuckerman's book “The Frackers“ — became the highest paid CEO in the U.S. as a result of the maneuver, raking in $142 million in 2013, $133 million of which came from stock awards.
Cheniere CEO Charif Souki; Photo Credit: Getty Images
Among the audit committee duties: “Prepare and review the audit committee report for inclusion in the proxy statement for the company's annual meeting of stockholders,” which is now set for September 11 after the push-back following the filing of the stockholder class-action lawsuit.
“The audit committee’s responsibility is oversight, and it recognizes that the company’s management is responsible for preparing the company’s financial statements and complying with applicable laws and regulations,” Cheniere's audit committee charter further explains.
Cheniere (stock symbol LNG, shorthand for “liquefied natural gas”) is currently awaiting a final decision on Corpus Christi LNG, its proposed LNG exports facility. That terminal would send gas obtained predominantly via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to the global market.
The company already received the first ever final approval to export fracked gas from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in April 2012 for its Sabine Pass LNG export terminal, which is scheduled to be operational by late-2015.
The nature of what role Zichal will play on the board and audit committee of the first company to make a major bet on LNG exports remains unclear. But one thing remains clear: she joins a politically well-connected cadre of Cheniere board members.
Other prominent Cheniere board members include John Deutch, former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Vicky Bailey, a FERC commissioner, both of whom worked for the Clinton administration.
And given Zichal's former role as liaison between the oil and gas industry at the White House and her track record serving in that role, it raises the question: was she working for the industry all along?
Zichal Oil and Gas Services
Zichal was best known to many as the main mediator between the oil and gas industry and the White House during her time working for the Obama administration. In fact, Cheniere cites that experience as the rationale for nominating her to serve on the board.
Heahter Zichal; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“Zichal has extensive knowledge of the domestic and global energy markets as well as the U.S. regulatory environment,” reads the “skills and qualifications” portion of her nomination announcement on Cheniere's Schedule 14A. “She brings a diversified perspective about the energy industry to our board having served in significant government positions during her career.”
As Obama's “climate czar,” Zichal headed up the effort — mandated via an April 13, 2012 Obama Executive Order — to streamline regulatory oversight of the gas industry in the U.S.
Titled, “Supporting Safe and Responsible Development of Unconventional Domestic Natural Gas Resources,” the Executive Order signed in the form of a “Friday news dump” created “a high-level, interagency working group that will facilitate…domestic natural gas development” overseen by Zichal.
Obama signed the Executive Order after meeting with Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute (API), and other industry leaders. According to EnergyWire, API requested the creation of that working group.
“We have called on the White House to rein in these uncoordinated activities to avoid unnecessary and overlapping federal regulatory efforts and are pleased to see forward progress,” Gerard told the Associated Press in response to a question about the order.
A month later on May 15, Zichal spoke to API about her efforts and those of the Obama administration on fracking.
“It's hard to overstate how natural gas — and our ability to access more of it than ever — has become a game-changer and that's why it's been a fixture of the President's 'All of the Above' energy strategy,” she told API.
“Just think about it: a few years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the United States would need to build more terminals to import natural gas overseas. And today, America is the world's leading producer of natural gas and we're actually exploring opportunities for exports.”
As a May 2012 Bloomberg article explained, among Zichal’s tasks was wooing API head Jack Gerard, which she appears to have succeeded at.
Jack Gerard; Photo Credit: Getty Images
Similar to the interagency working group created by the April 13, 2012, Executive Order, Zichal also oversaw the Bakken Federal Executives Group, which was created through the signing of Executive Order 13604 on March 22, 2012. That order was part of the same package that called for expedited building of the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Executive Order 13604 created an interagency steering committee with a goal “to significantly reduce the aggregate time required to make federal permitting and review decisions on infrastructure projects while improving outcomes for communities and the environment.”
Zichal was also instrumental in legalizing the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) approach for fracking chemical fluid disclosure on U.S. public lands, overseen by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management.
“Zichal met more than 20 times in 2012 with industry groups and company executives lobbying on the proposed rule,” reported EnergyWire. “Among them were the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), along with BP America Inc., Devon Energy Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp.”
Beyond overseeing streamlined permitting for fracking sites on both public and private lands, Zichal also oversaw the White House file for the Pavillion, Wyo., fracking groundwater contamination study.
Conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many believe the White House — counseled by Zichal — made a political calculus to cancel the ongoing investigation, the first of three major major studies on the subject shutdown by the EPA.
The Zichal nomination is taking place alongside the deployment of the Obama Administration regulating coal-fired power plants through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rule is a de facto endorsement of fracking and gas-fired power plants as part of the “all of the above” energy policy.
As the Zichal case makes clear with regards to climate change-causing fracked gas, LNG exports flow through the revolving door in Washington, DC, and beyond.
“The fact that one of Obama's top climate advisors is now helping expand fossil fuel use raises questions about how deeply embedded oil and gas industry interests are in the administration,” Jesse Coleman, a researcher for Greenpeace USA told DeSmogBlog.
Photo Credit: Heather Zichal speaks to the American Petroleum Institute in May 2012 | YouTube Screenshot