From Hurricane Maria to COVID, Gas Lobbyist-turned-Trump Energy Lawyer Uses Crises as 'Opportunity'

Read time: 14 mins
Bill Cooper being sworn in by Rick Perry

Among a string of recent environmental rollbacks, President Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aims to vastly narrow the scope of environmental reviews for those applying for liquefied natural gas (LNG) export permits. The proposal has been guided by Bill Cooper, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist who's now a top lawyer for the DOE.

On May 1, the DOE issued a proposal to limit environmental reviews for LNG export permit proposals so that the review applies to only the export process itself — literally “occurring at or after the point of export.” The rule would take off the table for consideration lifecycle greenhouse gas analyses, broader looks at both build-outs of pipelines and power plants attached to the export proposals, and other potential environmental impacts.

It comes as many larger forces up the pressure on LNG projects: The oil and gas industry is facing financial crisis, exports of fracked gas to the global market are steeply waning, and the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic nosedive are marching on in the United States.

The DOE's Bill Cooper, an oil and gas attorney by background with a long history of navigating the industry through crises both inside and outside of the federal government, signed off on the regulatory proposal.

Now DOE General Counsel, Cooper has proven instrumental in creating today’s U.S. regulatory regime both for fracking for natural gas and exporting it. This attempted rule change is just the latest chapter in that story. For Cooper, crisis has consistently served as an opportunity to implement regulatory change to favor the oil and gas industry.

As DeSmog has reported, Cooper played a critical role in getting regulatory exemption language now known as the “Halliburton Loophole” inserted into the 2005 energy bill

That loophole, in essence, ushered in the modern fracking boom by giving the industry exemptions from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act when companies use the horizontal drilling technique key to unlocking shale oil and gas. In 1999, the industry had openly admitted it could likely not perform the drilling technique without such regulatory relaxation. However, Cooper, working as legal counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, came through with a legislative fix in the 2005 energy bill.

Cooper’s boss at the time was the congressional committee’s staff director, Dan Brouillette. In a bit of déjà vu, Cooper is once again working for Brouillette, an auto industry lobbyist-turned-U.S. Secretary of Energy.

'Disaster for Communities'

This latest rule change proposal represents another major rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), part of a broader ongoing attack by the Trump administration on the bedrock environmental law that continued even after this May proposal. NEPA mandates a robust environmental evaluation of major interstate projects and those sited on federal lands or waters, while also forcing federal agencies to consider impacts on communities and the environment and hear feedback from the public that can shape the project and federal decision-making.

On June 4, President Trump signed a related executive order, invoking the state of national emergency declared due to COVID-19 and mandating that “agencies should take all reasonable measures to speed infrastructure investments.” It seeks to waive environmental review and public comment requirements under laws like NEPA and the Endangered Species Act for projects ranging from highways and mines to pipelines and LNG export terminals.

The administration argues that “emergency circumstances make it necessary to take actions with significant environmental impacts without observing the regulations” found in these bedrock laws meant to protect public health, air, water, plants, and wildlife.

Cooper has previously supported defanging NEPA reviews by removing requirements to analyze the lifecycle climate impacts of proposed projects.

DOE proposes to revise its regulations consistent with the legal principle that potential environmental effects considered under NEPA do not include effects that the agency has no authority to prevent, because they would not have a sufficiently close causal connection to the proposed action,” reads the outline of the proposed rule change published in the Federal Register. “Here, DOE’s proposed action is authorization of natural gas exports.”

In the outline of the proposed rule change, the agency pointed to two of its reports examining the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for exporting LNG, one in 2014 and its most recent iteration in 2019. DOE said that those reports' conclusions make all further analysis of potential greenhouse gas emissions from LNG export terminals a moot point.

Both Reports concluded that the use of U.S. LNG exports for power production in European and Asian markets will not increase global [greenhouse gas] emissions from a life cycle perspective, when compared to regional coal extraction and consumption for power production,” the DOE wrote this year.

Bill Cooper, third from left, next to Rick Perry
Bill Cooper, third from left, next to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on May 9, 2019. Credit: Department of Energy

But on a lifecycle perspective, scientists and analysts have found that fracking for gas and shipping it to global markets as LNG can come out as bad as or worse for the climate than coal. Collin Rees, Senior Campaigner at Oil Change U.S., called LNG exports a “disaster for communities and climate.”

Proposed LNG export terminals are being fought coast-to-coast by frontline communities because they would wreck the local environment, boost the devastating fracking boom, and lock the world into fossil fuel dependency for decades to come,” he told DeSmog. “The fossil fuel industry's arguments over the precise climate impacts of gas intentionally avoids a much more important point — we can't afford any more fossil fuel infrastructure, full stop,”

A number of those frontline communities are Native American, with a slew of tribes, including the Klamath and the Yurok tribes, coming out against the Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in Oregon. Rees also pointed to the “perfect storm of toxic racism, xenophobia, and environmental injustice” that a proposed LNG facility proposal presents to communities along the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas.

“The Brownsville community is already battling detention centers and an ongoing legacy of colonization, and they're now fighting three LNG export projects that could devastate the shrimping industry that's been one of the region's main economic drivers for decades,” said Rees. “NEPA is a critical tool for these communities to fight back against environmental injustices like these proposed facilities.”

This latest DOE regulatory proposal from Bill Cooper also points to a Technical Support Document in making its case for the environmental merits of LNG. In doing so, it cites a 2019 white paper published by the International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers, whose members include LNG industry titans such as Shell, Cheniere Energy, Dominion, and Sempra Energy.

Cooper and the DOE press team did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Cooper's Lobbying for LNG

For nearly a decade following his time in Congress, Cooper worked as a lobbyist for the LNG industry as executive director for the Center for LNG. The group, whose members include BP, Chevron, Energy Transfer Equity, ExxonMobil, Sempra Energy, Shell, and others, was created as an offshoot of the oil and gas industry's most powerful lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute (API). Cooper also was previously a lobbyist for API.


Bill Cooper. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

He has played the long game in pushing to expedite the federal LNG export permitting process, lobbying to make it happen at least since 2012, according to disclosures and other materials reviewed by DeSmog.

During an October 2012 hearing on the then-proposed Cove Point LNG export terminal in Maryland, Cooper testified to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) about the permitting process. Then wearing his Center for LNG hat, Cooper argued for FERC to offer the industry a truncated environmental review process, offering a similar regulatory framework to the one he recently signed off on as DOE General Counsel.

When preparing the [environmental assessment], the analysis should focus on the area immediately surrounding the facility,” said Cooper at the hearing.

In 2012, the Obama administration granted an export permit to the first LNG export terminal of the modern era, Sabine Pass LNG, owned by the company Cheniere. But the push to expedite permitting for LNG exports got a major shot in the arm in early 2014, after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine.

Sabine Pass LNG import terminal under construction in 2009
Cheniere Energy Sabine Pass LNG tanks in 2009, when the terminal was only approved to import natural gas.
Credit: Roy LuckCC BY 2.0

At that time, the gas industry began a full court press lobbying campaign, arguing that U.S. LNG could wean European Union countries off of Russian gas. Cooper played a key role in that, telling the industry trade publication Natural Gas Intelligence, and writing in an op-ed himself, that the moment of crisis can serve as an opportunity for the LNG industry.

From the tsunami in March 2011 that took thousands of lives and critically damaged Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, to the political upheaval in Ukraine, to the earthquake in Chile, crises are unpredictable and sometimes warrant a geopolitical response,” Cooper wrote in the Houston Chronicle in a piece titled, “Crises offer opportunity for U.S. energy markets.” “Our response should be to expeditiously address government permits so there will be fewer roadblocks for the U.S. to meet these needs.”

The Center for LNG then took the opportunity, under Cooper’s helm, to field 11 lobbyists to push Congress for legislation that expedites LNG export permits. One subsequent bill was the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act, calling for the DOE to make a final decision on an LNG export application within 30 days of completing environmental impact statements.

Two weeks after that legislation was introduced, Cooper told Natural Gas Intelligence, “We didn't gin up the idea that it ought to be connected in some way to LNG exports,” speaking of the rhetoric around tying the Ukraine crisis to support for LNG exports.

But Congress did, obviously, and a lot of editorials, experts and geopolitical analysts have all jumped on that,” Cooper added. “We appreciate the attention that LNG exports are receiving, and if it does provide a catalyst to make something happen that heretofore has not, then we're going to be very happy with that.”

That bill did pass in one chamber of Congress, the House, and Cooper’s lobbying group praised it upon passage. Industry players lobbying for it beyond the Center for LNG included API, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA, now part of API), Koch Industries, Halliburton, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and dozens of others.

Congress introduced two later bills with many of the same lobbying forces behind them in the weeks and years ahead, both of which the Center for LNG also lobbied.

Once the Ukraine saga had ended, the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act became the LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act. Cooper praised the House's passage of the bill in 2015, though it would stall in the Senate.

CLNG applauds the House of Representatives’ bipartisan solution to bring regulatory certainty to the permitting process for LNG export applications by implementing a deadline for DOE to act,” he said in Center for LNG press release at the time.

The bill’s passage would be one of his last efforts as a lobbyist for the group, though, terminating his lobbying registration in March of 2015. Cooper left lobbying to return to work for Congress, this time as a senior policy advisor and staff director of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

While his efforts to speed up LNG export permitting didn't pan out, the years of his LNG lobbying appear to have paid off. The Obama administration handed an LNG export permit to the same Cove Point LNG terminal for which Cooper had offered testimony at the 2012 hearing. Cove Point got the Obama green light two months after Cooper returned to work on Capitol Hill. The Obama administration also approved export permits for three other companies — Cameron LNG, Golden Pass LNG, and Elba Island LNG — during Obama's last year in office.

Puerto Rico PROMESA

After leaving Congress again in 2017, Cooper went back through the revolving door to work for the gas industry in the midst of another major crisis: This one in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a deadly storm intensified by climate change.

Power line repair after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico
Prime Power transmission and distribution specialists repair power lines in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, October 19, 2017. The mission supports those affected by Hurricane Maria. Credit: Department of Defense/Air Force Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts, public domain

Cooper’s story in Puerto Rico starts with his efforts to draft PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. This legislation created the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico to watchdog and manage its economic recovery from its debt crisis. That crisis predated —  but was worsened by — Hurricane Maria. Cooper’s boss at the time, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), was a co-sponsor of PROMESA and nearly nominated Cooper to serve as executive director for the oversight board.

The American Prospect’s David Dayen reported in 2016 that “Cooper wrote the section of PROMESA that would expedite conversions to natural gas” in Puerto Rico. This portion of the bill has a familiar ring to it: calling for an expedited permitting process for any electricity sector proposals deemed “critical.” According to a resume obtained via public records request, Cooper described himself as the “lead drafter and negotiator” of PROMESA.

From 2017-2018, Cooper opened up a Washington, D.C. office for the Puerto Rico-based corporate law firm ​McConnell Valdés. Just several months after Hurriane Maria tore through the island, Cooper signed up to lobby for gas utility giant, Engie North America. Engie co-owns the EcoEléctrica LNG import terminal in Puerto Rico and its neighboring EcoEléctrica Power Plant, the first natural gas power plant constructed in Puerto Rico.

According to his financial disclosure forms filed in early 2018 also obtained by DeSmog, Cooper earned over $345,000 alone for his 2017 legal and lobbying work in Puerto Rico. The lobbying paid dividends. Due to Cooper’s efforts, gas now flows to Puerto Rico at ever-increasing levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Cooper eventually left that job in 2018, as he awaited Senate confirmation for the role that would set him up to revisit expediting LNG export permitting. His old boss, now Energy Secretary, Dan Brouillette gave him a job as a senior advisor for the agency.

'

Under the terms of a recusal letter Cooper sent to the DOE in January 2019, he pledged, with regard to McConnell Valdés, that he “will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know this firm is a party or represents a party” for a period of one year.

'One of the Absolute Worst People' to Regulate Environmental Reviews

The public commenting period for the DOE's proposed LNG exports rule closed on June 1. Two of Cooper's former employers, the Center for LNG and American Petroleum Institute, submitted comments on the rule change.

“Reliable trade in natural gas is critical to maintaining the U.S. natural gas and LNG industry as an engine for growth in the United States,” the Center for LNG wrote. “Having reliable regulations here in the United States is an important step in enabling U.S. LNG exports to flourish.”

Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School with legal expertise on NEPA, told DeSmog that he does not think the proposed rule will carry legal muster in court. NEPA requires the federal government to take a “hard look” at the wide range of environmental impacts a proposed project may have.

I would expect a legal challenge to this DOE interpretation of its NEPA responsibilities,” said Parenteau. “It will join a long list of similar challenges to Trump rollbacks that are pending in the federal courts all across the country. Quite a mess for the next administration to clean up.”

Oil Change International’s Rees criticized Cooper’s role in the proposal to weaken NEPA. “Calling this the fox guarding the henhouse doesn't do it justice,” he said.

“This rule change would be a massive giveaway to polluters, so it's no surprise to see it being pushed by a fossil fuel lobbyist who's now part of the Trump administration,” said Rees. “Bill Cooper is one of the absolute worst people in the world to be regulating environmental reviews for fossil fuel projects.”

Main image: Bill Cooper sworn in as U.S. Department of Energy General Counsel on May 9, 2019. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy on YouTube 

Get DeSmog News and Alerts