7 Reasons Why Jeff Flake Is Awful on Climate Change and Energy Justice

Read time: 12 mins
Jeff Flake

This week, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) made national headlines by dramatically announcing his retirement on the U.S. Senate floor. Flake focused his speech on the erratic behavior of President Donald Trump and the nationalistic, anti-immigration turn taken by some Republican Party politicians in recent years. 

“I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles,” said Flake. “To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.”

Beyond taking a stance in favor of corporate-backed free trade and “limited government and free markets,” Flake's speech mostly stayed away from policy. But it did include the word “behavior” eight times, pointing to that of President Trump without explicitly mentioning the president by name.

Flake's speech has won him praise by pundits and politicians on both sides of the political aisle, ranging from U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), to MSNBC show host and Capitol Hill reporter Kasie Hunt and neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol. It also has scored him countless fawning profile pieces in the media.

But with high praise has come criticism, with some critics countering that Trump merely says loudly the same things that mainstream Republican officials are dog-whistling. Others point out that on policy, Flake and Trump align on issues such as cutting health care coverage and offering tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

And as news site FightThirtyEight points out, Flake has voted for policies Trump favors 90 percent of the time. There's also the fact that in August Flake was polling at an 18 percent approval rating in Arizona and has even admitted himself he would likely lose in the Republican Party primary if he ran. Trump supporters, all the while, have cheered Flake's departure.

Yet lost in the conversation, thus far, has been almost any discussion of some of the major issues of our time: climate change, energy, and the environment. And on that count, Flake has made a career out of doing the bidding of his fossil fuel and mining industry corporate campaign donors. 

Here are seven reasons why Jeff Flake has been awful on the issues which, for humanity in the long run, arguably count the most.

1.) Climate Change Denier

Perhaps superseding all else, Flake is a climate change science denier, claiming that no one “can say definitely” what has caused global temperature increases.

“Certainly, nobody can deny that we’ve had several years of warmer temperatures. If that signals routine change that is manmade or not, I don’t think anybody can say definitely,” Flake said in 2014.

In 2015, Flake also voted “nay” on an amendment proposed by Democrats for a GOP-proposed bill in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline which asked if human activities led to climate change. Flake introduced his own amendment during the voting process, one which supported “the evaluation and consolidation of duplicative green building programs.”

For insight into his motivations, look to Flake's campaign backers in the fossil fuel industry. According to OpenSecrets.org, Flake has taken $312,260 from the oil and gas industry and another $226,721 from the electric utilities industry since his congressional career began in 2000.

In the 2012 Senate race to represent Arizona, Flake took $96,000 from the oil and gas industry, $32,500 from electric utilities, and $39,000 from the coal industry. That included taking money from funders of climate change denial, such as Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute

On the same day he gave his retirement speech, Flake was one of 17 Senators to vote against a disaster relief aid package for Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria.

2.) Opponent of Public Lands

Flake has also long been a proponent of “states' rights” for U.S. federal lands, a colloquialism often used by conservatives and corporate-financed groups to argue for transferring ownership of federal lands to the states in order to make it easier for drilling and mining companies to access public land for extractive purposes. 

In October 2016, Flake and McCain wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama requesting that his administration not designate any land in Arizona as a national monument, as was eventually done in Utah for Bears Ears. Obama eventually complied with the request, for which Flake and McCain praised him.

Flake also introduced a bill in July which would transfer and sell U.S. public lands maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Mojave County, Arizona, to county residents.

These pieces of legislation give regional and local interests a voice in how to best to utilize and maintain lands within the state, which is critical in Arizona where nearly half the land is owned by the federal government,” Flake said of the bill, which was also introduced in 2016.

The Center for American Progress has pigeonholed Flake as part of the “Anti-Parks Caucus” due to his anti-public lands politicking. Likewise, the Center for Biological Diversity put Flake on its top 15 list of “public land enemies.”

3.) Rubberstamp for Trump Nominees

Flake has voted “yes” on 23 out of 24 Trump federal agency nominees, with the exception being a vote in which he didn't participate. He voted “yes” for all of Trump's energy and environmental nominees, including Secetary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

EPA’s litany of overreaching regulations have strained Arizona’s economic competitiveness,” Flake said in a statement in response to Pruitt's successful nomination to head the EPA. “I was pleased to vote to confirm Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator so together we can get to work eliminating unnecessary economic barriers and restoring regulatory certainty.” 

Pruitt, like Flake, is a climate change denier.

4.) Cheerleader for Fracking and Coal

Flake has been supportive of the Pruitt-led EPA and its deregulatory efforts, including the rollback of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would have regulated greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants. 

It’s been phenomenal to see an administration in this area, on the regulatory front, to do so much to create a better regulatory environment for businesses to prosper,” he told the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, according to the Phoenix Business Journal. “I mentioned in a meeting just before this with Secretary Pruitt [sic] that I put out a press release from the office several weeks ago and after I put it out or approved it, I realized that we are actually complimenting the EPA for working with us on an issue that is benefiting Arizona and that I haven’t done in a long, long, long time.”

Additionally, Flake voted “yes” for a bill, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which would block the EPA's ability to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases to address climate change. It was lobbied for by Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), Peabody Energy, Edison Electric Institute, and a litany of other major fossil fuel industry players.

Flake and McCain also denounced the Clean Power Plan when proposed in 2015 in a letter to then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. The two of them described the plan as an “attempt to bypass Congress and commandeer the state regulatory process to impose unduly burdensome carbon-emissions regulations at existing power plants.” Flake even referred to Obama's regulatory plans as a “war on coal.”

“There is a war on coal at the EPA. Let's call it for what it is,” Flake told an audience in 2012. “And they're going to use anything they can, it seems, to push forward that war on coal.”

During the early years of the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom in the U.S., Flake also voted in opposition to a bill which would have given subsidies to the renewable energy sector, giving a speech on the House floor in 2008 which stated that subsidizing the alternative energy sphere would hurt the oil and gas industry. 

“While it is well and good to encourage alternative energy development, Congress should not do so by damaging our domestic oil and gas industry. In 2006 all renewable energy sources provided only 6 percent of the U.S. domestic energy supply. In contrast, oil and natural gas provided 58 percent of our domestic energy supply,” Flake said. “The numbers don't lie. Oil and natural gas fuel our economy and sustain our way of life.”

On the contrary, Flake has voted against a bill which would have ended tax subsidies for domestic production of oil and natural gas.

5.) Opponent of Indigenous Rights

Perhaps most prominently in recent years, Flake and McCain also co-sponsored and pushed a bill which was eventually inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 (NDAA) calling for thousands of acres of national parks land to be handed over to Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton for copper mining purposes. The catch: It was located on land considered holy by the San Carlos Apache tribe.

“The land grab was sneakily anti-democratic even by congressional standards,” explained a New York Times op-ed in May 2015. “[T]he giveaway language was slipped onto the defense bill by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona at the 11th hour. The tactic was successful only because, like most last-minute riders, it bypassed public scrutiny … The deal is an impressive new low in congressional corruption, unworthy of our country’s ideals no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. It’s exactly the kind of cynical maneuvering that has taught the electorate to disrespect politicians — a disdain for government that hurts everyone.”

The New York Times article points out, too, that Flake used to lobby for Rio Tinto (more on that below). 

The secretive deal came under fierce opposition by Apaches and was met with protest. It was also criticized by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

This is a precedent setter, because if we do not repeal this portion of [the NDAA bill], then sacred sites and religious burial sites — all the things that are by law protected — are suddenly expendable, which sets a precedent for other parts of Indian Country,” Grijalva said at a July 2015 rally

6.) Right-Wing Machine, Apartheid Ties

Flake's rise to Congress started by many acounts during his time spent as executive director of the Goldwater Institute, which is part of the right-wing State Policy Network, itself founded as an offshoot of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In his recently released book Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, Flake's book shares a title with that of the late Senator Barry Goldwater's famous 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Among other things, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As Phoenix New Times reported back in 1999, Flake cut his teeth at the Institute as an avid opponent of public schools and proponent of a voucher, school-choice system.

Before running the Goldwater Institute, Flake served as a lobbyist for the mining company Rossing Uranium in Namibia, 68 percent owned by mining giant Rio Tinto. Flake's official biography only mentions his work abroad there as executive director of the Foundation for Democracy, helping the country “usher in freedom and democracy.” At the time, Namibia was run by the South African government, which imposed apartheid in the country until it gained independence in 1990.

Flake denied that the work he did helped bolster the system of apartheid, but audio arose during his 2012 run for Senate revealing his lobbying of the Utah state Senate against economic sanctions applied toward the South African apartheid regime.

National Journal reported that Flake earned $5,000 to $7,000 per month for his lobbying work, which he did as a registered foreign agent. Before that work for Rossing Uranium, Flake worked for “Smoak, Shipley & Henry, whose principals, Marion Smoak and Carl Shipley, had ties to the South African-controlled regime in Namibia during apartheid,” National Journal reported.

Throughout his political career, the mining companies have contributed $287,902 to Flake’s campaigns.

7.) Koch Brothers Servant

In his 2012 Senate race, Flake's biggest donor by far was Club for Growth, a group co-founded by Stephen Moore, who was a senior economic adviser for the Trump presidential campaign. Moore co-authored a book steeped in climate change denial, Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy, alongside Kathleen Hartnett White, who was recently named chair of the Trump White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

That year Flake received just over $1 million from the Club, which receives funding from the Koch network and other wealthy conservatives, and he was the biggest recipient of its donations for that electoral cycle. Flake also served as a signatory for Americans for Prosperity's (AFP“No Climate Tax” pledge. AFP is a front group founded and created by the Koch Family Foundations.

Flake also received a $2,000 campaign contribution from Koch Industries for his 2012 Senate race. In return, Flake has received a 98 percent scorecard rating from AFP and a 97 percent rating from Club for Growth, which he touts on his official Senate biography page.

'Children Are Watching'

In his retirement speech, Flake noted that “children are watching,” too.  

“It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? — what are we going to say?” Flake asked rhetorically. “I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”

But on the issues of climate change and environmental justice, Flake's questions could easily be flipped back on him, as a politician who has paved his career with climate denial. And as 21 youth suing the U.S. government for failing to act on climate change have shown, indeed, the “children are watching.”

Main image: Senator Jeff Flake. Credit: C-SPAN Screenshot

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