Tommy Beaudreau Is Big Oil’s Back Door to Biden’s Interior
In light of Build Back Better sputtering, the pressure on Biden to deliver climate progress via enforcement of longstanding environmental law is growing. The Department of the Interior is critical to Biden’s execution of an ambitious environmental agenda without the cooperation of Congress, but — as personnel is always policy — not all those staffing Interior’s highest circles inspire confidence in the agency’s allegiance to environmental progressivism.
President Biden nominated Tommy Beaudreau to be his Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior last April, and he was confirmed to the position by June. Unfortunately, though Biden seeks to be seen as a climate champion, Beaudreau was, and is, a uniquely terrible choice to help helm a climate-focused administration. His revolving door record is extensive, his conflicts of interest are nearly unprecedented, and his (re)installment at the highest circles of the Department of the Interior was ultimately a win for oil and gas conglomerates.
Besides, he’s the guy who ensured BP faced no real consequences for destroying the Gulf of Mexico. Why did Biden promote him?
Deepwater Horizon Involvement
President Obama hired Beaudreau in June of 2010 to coordinate the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill three months earlier. After a methane explosion on a BP-owned oil rig 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 people on the rig, 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. A decade later, the spill continues to impact local marine and human life as oil remains trapped in the gulf’s deepwater. In 2011, Beaudreau became the founding director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), charged with investigation into, and the execution of, new, more intensive regulatory regimes for deepwater drilling.
He failed catastrophically. In 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity described Beaudreau as a “rubber stamp” for Big Oil’s drilling activities following the spill. CBD further detailed how BOEM, both under and following Beaudreau’s leadership, utterly failed to implement the systemic changes its own commission insisted were necessary to safeguard against another spill. CBD also noted that “meaningful changes never occurred” in the federal approval of drilling activities following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Beaudreau did not address the “systemic breakdowns in the environmental-review process” that allowed BP’s environmental and procedural negligence. The office even gave Big Oil seven years to implement and address many of its new (albeit inadequate) standards while allowing drilling activities to continue.
Meanwhile, Beaudreau allowed BP to bid on new drilling leases in the gulf just a year after Deepwater Horizon. He not only failed to institute better, safer regulatory regimes (as was his job), but actually escorted the same firm which destroyed the Gulf of Mexico back into its waters.
Beaudreau was also a key architect of the 2012-2017 offshore drilling lease schedule. The plan opened “the vast majority of known offshore oil and gas resources for development over the next five years and includes a cautious but forward-looking leasing strategy for the Alaska Arctic,” in the words of then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (who himself later revolved to BigLaw giant WilmerHale to represent oil and gas interests). Beaudreau later testified to Congress that the leasing plan opened more than 75 percent of the “undiscovered, technically recoverable, oil and gas resources estimated to exist in [U.S.] federal waters.” Additionally, the schedule opened risky leasing sites off the coast of Alaska, including leases in the Chukchi Sea.
Chukchi Sea Debacle
Beaudreau was also heavily involved in Interior’s infamous leasing of the Chukchi Sea for drilling. The debacle remains indicative of Interior’s failure to adequately exercise its environmental oversight responsibilities. The Chukchi Sea, located off the coast of Alaska, was originally opened for leasing in 2008 under the Bush administration at an auction which Shell won. In 2010, though, the Federal District Court in Alaska determined that the original lease sale violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The ruling required Interior to evaluate the environmental impact of drilling activities on the numerous rare and endangered species that reside in the area and to reconsider the leasing decision. In December of 2011, when Beaudreau was BOEM Director, BOEM issued a “finding of no significant impact” regarding Shell’s drilling plans in the region and ultimately reaffirmed the sale.
Shell’s drilling ventures in the Chukchi Sea proved disastrous. Vox described how Shell’s attempts to drill exploratory wells included fires, dangerous working conditions, equipment failures, and drifting boats. Beaudreau, in testimony before the Senate, defended Interior’s decision to allow Shell to pursue drilling activities. He maintained that the operation was subject to “strong Federal oversight” and that Interior had done no wrong in the project’s oversight or approval processes. If what Beaudreau said were true, it would be a colossal indictment of his Department’s own protocols.
But the Ninth Circuit didn’t take Beaudreau’s testimony at face value, and in 2014 ruled that Interior had failed to “adequately analyze the potential environmental effects of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, where Shell planned to drill.”
Beaudreau and the Revolving Door
Following his various roles in the Obama administration’s DOI, Beaudreau became a partner at BigLaw firm Latham & Watkins, a top firm for oil and gas interests, in 2017. The Revolving Door Project, in partnership with the People’s Parity Project, has previously examined how Latham is one of BigLaw’s worst offenders in defense of climate devastation. While there, Beaudreau worked extensively with and for numerous oil, gas, coal, and other climate-damaging corporations, many of which he is now charged with regulating.
Ethics filings revealed that Beaudreau’s client list at Latham included 35 corporations, at least nine of which are oil, gas, land, and coal conglomerates that stand to benefit from his new regulatory perch. Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was widely attacked for his list of 17 clients, which also included multiple oil, gas, and energy conglomerates. Brett Hartl, the director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Mother Jones that Beaudreau’s list was “pretty disqualifying” and that “this [list represents] a massive amount of conflict, and frankly [Beaudreau] has biases that I think are going to be difficult to reconcile.”
Several of Beaudreau’s clients stand out as particularly egregious conflicts of interest given their statuses as globally significant polluters and financiers of climate destruction. Arclight Capital Partners, for example, is a private equity firm whose coal and gas subsidiaries have been hit with over $700 million in environmental offenses since 2000. Arclight itself has extensive gas storage holdings, and has engaged in predatory financial practices in order to profiteer off climate-damaging activities. In 2017, Arclight partnered with Blackstone to take over several coal plants. Through the use of special dividends, Arclight and Blackstone granted themselves record profits while simultaneously passing all risk from the enterprise to debt-holders in a move that actively imperiled mutual funds.
Amongst Beaudreau’s other clients is the world’s largest coal mining company, BHP, which has an extraordinary record of global environmental abuse. BHP is also the firm behind the proposed Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona that would devastate Oak Flats’ natural landscape. and Indigenous communities and activists have strenuously protested the Resolution Copper Mine due to the sacred significance of its location to the Apache Nation and other regional Indigenous peoples. Arch Resources is another of Beaudreau’s coal clients. Notably, in 2021, albeit prior to Beaudreau’s confirmation as Deputy Secretary, Interior granted Arch its request for royalty reductions (fee relief) despite Arch putting up soaring profits in the second quarter of the year. Dominion Energy, yet another Beaudreau client, is an energy conglomerate whose portfolio is also majorly entrenched in gas and coal. The Sierra Club has previously examined how “Dominion’s fracked gas pipelines, toxic coal ash dumps, and corrosive influence on politics are jeopardizing the health of people, communities, and landscapes.”
Beaudreau’s most clear conflict of interest, though, lies in his two former clients with offshore drilling interests. The first, Beacon Offshore Energy, is a Gulf of Mexico-based gas and oil exploration and production company owned by Blackstone Energy Partners. The second, Total SE, is a French Oil Company with two offshore drilling sites located in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were impacted by policy that he helped craft while at the Obama White House and he will once again have significant influence over their regulation from within Biden’s.
This laundry list of clients also represents a massive payday for Beaudreau. His complicity in climate chaos has proved incredibly financially rewarding, as in 2021 Beaudreau reported receiving over $2.3 million in partner shares for his work at Latham.
Beaudreau and the Biden Era
In 2021, President Biden nominated Beaudreau to be Deputy Secretary at Interior, a position to which he was confirmed in June. Given his long standing personal, regulatory, and financial entrenchment in fossil fuel complicity, it is no surprise that Beaudreau’s nomination under the Biden administration was celebrated by fossil fuel allies like both top officials on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, oil-bought John Barrasso and coal baron Joe Manchin. Meanwhile, environmental and conservation groups actively opposed Beaudreau’s 2021 nomination. Among these groups were Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Seeding Sovereignty, which together argued that his presence at Interior “would undermine President Biden’s climate agenda.”
These concerns have since proven justified. Since his confirmation, Beaudreau’s environmental record has continued to be spotty at best. Perhaps most notably, in November, the Biden administration auctioned off 80 million acres of new oil and gas leases in federal waters. The auction occurred almost simultaneously with President Biden’s proclaimed allegiance to the climate goals listed at Glasgow. The Biden Administration falsely declared it was required to hold the sale, and Beaudreau specifically repeated the false and misleading claim multiple times. He also asserted that Interior’s hands were tied by the “legacy system” he claims he plans to reform but which he had outsized influence in crafting. Further, while speaking at an energy panel at the University of Chicago, Beaudreau blamed 40 years of administrative practice for the sale, disregarding his own extensive role in crafting and enforcing energy policy.
The Deputy Secretary of Interior has immense power over the internal affairs of the agency as the position is considered both the department’s Chief Financial Officer and its Chief Operating Officer. As such, the Deputy Secretary oversees scientific integrity, the department’s ethics program, and the agency’s major expenditures. Beaudreau has also been assigned to co-chair the Departmental Climate Task Force which is charged with an encompassing review of Interior’s climate and environmental justice response. Meaning, Beaudreau is one of the primary leaders charged with leading and implementing Interior’s climate policy. As an enabler and profiteer of climate chaos, Beaudreau’s authority over this policy poses a devastating threat to the bold action needed from Interior to meaningfully address climate change.
Nominating, confirming, and keeping Beaudreau in this position is incompatible with the President’s own stated campaign goals, not to mention the planet’s basic needs. Time and again Biden relies on the same tactics used in Washington for decades — rewarding loyal revolvers with important jobs that will boost their resumes and, in turn, boost their future salaries. It is absolutely unconscionable, but it is not too late for Biden to admit to his catastrophic mistake, remove Beaudreau from the position, and fill his executive team with public servants willing to stand up to the pure evil that is the fossil fuel industry. His legacy, and the fate of the living planet, depends on it.