Don’t be fooled by her green-sounding credentials – Heather Zichal is a revolver for hire.
With the Senate’s rejection of Senator Joe Manchin’s permitting reform legislation as a notable exception, last week was a bad one for fossil fuel disasters and corporate accountability. In Kansas, a Keystone pipeline leak caused the largest US crude oil spill in a decade. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, investigators found ongoing gas leaks in Equitrans’ pipeline storage facilities that released massive amounts of methane in November — enough to erase 50% of emission gains from US electric vehicles sales this year.
In response to these ecological fiascos, a Biden administration that has continually claimed to be prioritizing urgently needed climate action showed their true colors yet again — rather than condemn the corporations putting profit over life, Biden and his appointees spent last week cozying up to the fossil fuel industry. On Wednesday, in a little-reported meeting with oil executives, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm extended an “olive branch” to the oil and gas industry. Granholm told the National Petroleum Council, “We are eager to work with you” while calling for more crude oil investment going forward. Then, on Thursday, the White House released a statement expressing support for Senator Joe Manchin’s permitting reform proposal — which is blatantly designed to help developers finish the Mountain Valley Pipeline (operated by Equitrans, responsible for the massive and ongoing methane leaks) among other projects — in the name of promoting a “sustainable… energy future.” (Though advocates saw a win last week, as Manchin’s bid to attach the legislation to the National Defense Authorization Act failed again, it is expected he will continue his push to weaken environmental review of fossil fuel and other energy projects in 2023.)
Unfortunately, catering to corporate interests while claiming to support climate action is nothing new for the Biden administration. Biden and surrogates accomplish this sleight of hand by using the language of “clean energy” to suggest they are taking action on climate change, while really responding to the demands of corporate lobbyists, whether in fossil fuels or renewables, often with little to no pushback from media outlets reporting on their policies. Further, following the Obama administration’s lead, the Biden administration is participating in the liquified natural gas (LNG) industry’s efforts to rebrand as a “clean” energy source, rather than a dirty fossil fuel. As countless recent studies have demonstrated (more here and here), and as my colleague Hannah Story Brown discussed in last week’s newsletter, when properly accounting for the levels of leakage of planet-warming methane gas during the process of extracting natural gas, the use of LNG proves a much bigger contributor to climate change than previously calculated. These findings have led climate justice advocates to challenge the idea of LNG as a “bridge fuel” between fossil fuels and renewables, pointing out that natural gas is more harmful than the industry has admitted. By accepting industry and administration talking points at face value, mainstream media have helped create a context where a LNG industry-allied hack can be conflated with a climate advocate, using the language of “clean” energy and gas that is supposedly “cleaner” than oil to disguise private corporate profit incentives.
Few individuals represent this practice of deliberate misdirection as well as Biden transition advisor and former Obama “climate czar” Heather Zichal,
Zichal has made a career using the language of “clean energy” to roll back regulations on the oil and gas industry and advance the interests of any corporation in the energy industry that will pay for her services. As a “climate advisor” to President Obama from 2008 to 2011, Zichal was a liaison to the energy industry, working closely with industry executives to “streamline” federal regulations on fracking. She received praise from natural gas giant Cheniere for helping them obtain the first US LNG export license in 2010. In public comments, Zichal regularly promoted the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy approach, expressing support for the expansion of coal, nuclear energy, oil, and gas alongside truly renewable and clean energy sources.
In 2014, Zichal leveraged her role in the Obama administration to revolve into a lucrative board position with that same gas company Cheniere, which paid her over $1 million over several years to help it market natural gas as belonging under the “clean energy” umbrella. She also took on other fossil fuel industry-funded fellowships and consulting roles. When Zichal came on board as a “climate advisor” to the Biden presidential campaign in 2019, she reached out to various fossil fuel industry contacts for policy advice. Environmental advocates pointed out her clear financial self-interest in promoting industry-friendly so-called “climate” policies.
The icing on the cake of Zichal’s deceptions came in 2020, when she became CEO of the newly-formed American Clean Power Association (ACP), a trade association that serves as an umbrella lobbying group for the renewable energy industry. The group, by its own admission, works to “unit[e] the power of solar, wind, storage, and transmission companies along with manufacturers and construction companies, developers and owners/operators, utilities, financial firms, and corporate purchasers in the clean energy value chain.” As a result, it is intimately connected to utilities that provide natural gas in addition to electricity, and to companies that are reliant on currently dominant energy sources including natural gas, including through its associated Clean Power PAC. Given the US’ multi-source energy system, and the investments of many fossil fuel companies into renewables to diversify their portfolios, there is no way to be a central actor in the energy sector without having connections to dirty energy like natural gas, alongside the “clean.” With this context, it’s clear that Zichal’s bio on the site is deliberately misleading: it describes her as having had a “long career battling global climate change,” a stretch by any measure for a millionaire fossil fuel industry advisor.
This misdirection is no accident. Zichal and ACP are a clear part of the push by Cheniere and other natural gas companies to rebrand and group gas under the umbrella of “clean” (or at least “clean-er”) energy, instead of with other polluting and planet-warming fossil fuels, where it clearly belongs. Cheniere’s ties to the White House cut across administrations and party lines – major Cheniere investor Carl Icahn, a close friend of President Trump’s, served briefly as a “special advisor on deregulation” during the Trump administration, carrying on Zichal’s work but with a more accurate title.
Mainstream media has largely played along with Zichal and the ACP’s deception. Zichal’s role at ACP meant she was often uncritically quoted in the media as a source on the “clean energy” industry. She was also sought out for comment by publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press, Business Wire, and The Guardian, on topics including the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and Biden Administration climate policy. Usually described as an “Obama climate advisor,” a “clean energy leader,” or CEO of the American Clean Power Association, sometimes called a “green energy sector” advocacy group, Zichal is implicitly described as being committed to addressing climate change. Media has conflated her work with the “clean energy” industry with actually opposing or stopping climate change. Even reporters like the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman, who have in the past pointed out advocates’ rightful criticisms of Zichal’s fossil fuel industry ties, have later returned to quoting her as a representative of clean energy and climate change solutions, not mentioning her self-interest in promoting policies that benefit natural gas companies in particular.
To even the most mildly critical observer, it should be clear that Zichal’s real commitment is not to stopping climate change, but to whichever group of companies is paying her at the moment. Even as she supposedly championed “clean energy” at ACP, Zichal expressed public support for Manchin’s permitting reform proposal (including in an op-ed for The Hill on behalf of ACP) and other policies that benefit the oil and gas industry. Zichal claimed her group’s support for Manchin’s legislation was linked to the goal of speeding up the progress of renewable energy projects, parroting fossil fuel industry talking points. But she failed to grapple with the arguments of the many climate justice groups which staunchly oppose the legislation and have pointed out how environmental reviews would be weakened and gas and oil projects would speed up, causing more spills, leaks, and ecological damage than ever.
Another plausible explanation for Zichal’s position on permitting reform? She has long benefited from using her connections to Democratic presidents and policymakers to advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry, and she doesn’t plan to stop now.
Finally, in September, Zichal left her role at ACP to become JPMorgan Chase’s new Global Head of Sustainability, landing squarely back in the corporate world, where her heart clearly lies. That same month, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon paradoxically insisted in congressional testimony that “investing in the oil and gas complex is good for reducing CO2,” claiming that many nations are returning to coal due to high oil and gas prices (while failing to address the temporary nature of returns to coal, or to consider how non-fossil fuel investments could also meet energy demands in those countries). Undoubtedly, Zichal will find herself propping up similarly regressive arguments that benefit her friends in the oil and gas industry in the name of “sustainability” in her new role.
It’s time for the media to stop uncritically equating support for the “clean” energy industry and its constituent companies with support for ending the reign of fossil fuels. Any industry, left unregulated, will prioritize profits above all else. Simply choosing the lesser evil of renewable energy sources does not mean that corporations — even the less evil ones — have suddenly decided to prioritize public good over private profits. Opportunists and revolvers like Zichal know this, and should be called out more regularly. They serve at the beck and call of any corporation willing to pay to make their business sound green and climate-friendly.
Climate policy should not be based on which energy sector’s trade association has the ear of the President on a given day. It should rely on science-based plans for avoiding even more irreversible damage to communities, ecosystems, and the planet’s habitability. President Biden and anyone in his administration with the power to shape climate policies should be focused on measurable success toward climate goals of reducing emissions and pollution. They should do this by using strong public statements and the full force of regulatory agencies to condemn environmental harms of the fossil fuel industry, not by catering to the demands of captured representatives like Manchin and industry-funded “experts” like Zichal. The administration’s support this week for fossil fuel-backed permitting reform and the National Petroleum Institute’ interests is unconscionable, and would be walked back immediately, were the administration more committed to stopping climate change than appeasing corporate leaders.