Koch-Backed and Anti-Renewable Energy Groups Wooing Interior Department Official


Fossil fuel groups backed by the Koch brothers and lobbyists for anti-renewable energy entities have been courting an Interior Department official responsible for energy policy, according to internal documents. Vincent DeVito, a senior energy advisor to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has received considerable attention from these groups, accepting several invitations to closed meetings and conferences.

DeVito, a former lawyer and lobbyist for the Boston-based firm Bowditch and Dewey, joined Trump’s Interior Department as a political appointee in early 2017, and has already loomed as a key official responsible for rolling back federal species protections at the behest of the fossil fuel industry.

His calendar and travel documents, recently released through an open records request and reviewed by DeSmog, show that in his first few months in office, DeVito attended many energy industry events.

Agenda: ‘Easing Barriers’ to Fossil Fuel Development

In June last year, DeVito received an invitation to attend a meeting in Boston of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a national trade group representing investor-owned utilities. The invitation was sent by Michael Whatley, a lobbyist for the firm HBW Resources, which runs the fossil fuel-backed front group Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), of which EEI is a member.

In the invitation, which is signed by EEI President Thomas Kuhn, EEI sought insights about “easing barriers” to siting energy infrastructure such as transmission lines and gas pipelines, as well as on “regulatory reform.” The Interior Department oversees drilling and energy infrastructure permitting on all U.S. public lands and waters.

In a follow-up email to the invitation from an EEI staffer, DeVito was specifically asked to attend EEI’s closed-to-the-public natural resources subcommittee meeting, which would discuss “ways to streamline federal permitting processes on public lands.”  

Lobbying records show that at the same time he sent the invitation to DeVito, Whatley, a former Trump campaign and transition team advisor, was registered to lobby the Interior Department on CEA’s behalf, advocating “access to federal lands and offshore areas for energy development.” 

In recent years, the EEI and CEA have been involved in campaigns promoting oil and gas pipelines while opposing renewable energy expansion. In one of their latest endeavors, both groups participated in a successful effort to kill a pro-solar bill in the Maine legislature.

Yet according to Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager at the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, which tracks attacks on renewable energy, this seems to be the first evidence indicating HBW Resources and its front group CEA are working directly for EEI.

The documents show Whatley using his insider status within the Trump administration to communicate on behalf of his client, a powerful electric utility industry association,” said Anderson. “So to connect the dots: here you have Whatley sharing a personal invite from Tom Kuhn, the president of EEI, for Trump’s Interior Department to discuss deregulation at the utility industry’s largest annual events. All the while, EEI is also working with the oil and gas industry on such campaigns as countering public concerns about pipelines and fracking.” 

Neither Whatley nor EEI replied to requests for comment.

Koch Connections

Two months after the EEI event, DeVito received an invitation to speak at a Richmond, Virginia meeting of the Koch-funded think tank Americans for Prosperity (AFP). Jason Funes, a special assistant at the Interior Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, who forwarded DeVito the invitation, told DeVito he was slated to speak on a panel with two other AFP executives.

DeVito would join Chrissy Harbin, formerly an AFP vice president for external affairs who recently joined the Department of Energy, and Grant Kidwell, formerly an AFP policy analyst who now works for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), on a panel titled “Give Me Liberty in Energy.”

Specifically, Funes wrote, the panel will focus on “deregulation in the energy sector,” adding: “You would be a YUGE hit if you could attend!” After DeVito accepted the invitation, Funes, who previously worked as an operative on Trump’s presidential campaign, responded: “Making American Energy Great Again! 1 event at a time :).”   

Email from Jason Funes at Interior talking about Vincent DeVito attending an Americans for Prosperity meeting
An email from Jason Funes to Vincent Devito about attending an Americans for Prosperity meeting.

AFP, which lauded Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as a “major victory,” has a history of climate change denial. In 2008, the organization held a 40-state “Hot Air Tour,” decrying “global warming alarmism.”

Meetings with Fossil Fuel Industry

These were not the only industry meetings DeVito attended in 2017. In September, he spoke at the Kentucky Coal Association’s annual meeting. Tyler White, the association’s president, told DeVito’s assistant in an email that because the meeting will be closed to the public and press, “it will be a friendly crowd.”

Email from the president of the Kentucky Coal Association to Vincent DeVito about speaking to a 'friendly crowd'
From an email by Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, to Vincent Devito’s assistant.

Shortly after, DeVito accepted an invitation by the North Dakota Petroleum Council to attend its meeting in Grand Forks. The original agenda billed DeVito’s talk in a way that suggests a focus on deregulation — “30 Day Permitting: Is It Achievable?” — though a handwritten note crossing out that title indicates it was changed to “Energy Perspective.”

Other events DeVito attended included the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s energy and sustainability conference, which was sponsored by such fossil fuel companies as Dominion, EQT Corporation, and Mountain Valley Pipeline; the Energy Exposition in Colorado, an oil and gas industry event; and the oil and gas industry-funded Western Energy Alliance’s annual meeting in August 2017.  

The Department of Interior did not respond to detailed questions about this story.

Main image: Vincent DeVito speaking at the Heartland Institute’s America First Energy conference in 2017. Credit: YouTube screen shot

Itai Vardi is a sociologist and freelance journalist. He lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.

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