Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's most vehement climate science critic, has hired a new point man on energy and environmental policy whom conservatives love and greens -- believe it or not -- respect.
George "Dave" Banks, who served as a senior adviser on international affairs in the George W. Bush administration's White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2006 to 2009, starts early next month as deputy staff director for the Inhofe-led minority on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Inhofe yesterday described Banks as "strong opponent" of cap and trade who received "one of the strongest recommendations" from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"He's very strong in his feeling on all these overregulations -- specifically on cap and trade," Inhofe said.
But some environmentalists say Banks may bridge the deep partisan divide on a committee led by the polar political opposites Inhofe, on the Republican side, and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairwoman.
"Hopefully, that's what he'll be able to do for Inhofe: find the common ground between Boxer and Inhofe, which is a very small space," said one environmental lobbyist familiar with Banks and the committee, who asked to remain anonymous so as to speak frankly.
Banks replaces Mike Catanzaro, who left Inhofe's committee staff to advise House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on energy issues. Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell in a 2006 blog post called Catanzaro "a former Inhofe hit man," "attack dog" and "conduit by the mining industry in its efforts to evade clean air restrictions."
By contrast, Banks won an award from the Obama administration U.S. EPA in 2009 for his work in international climate diplomacy. Banks was "the only Bush political appointee to have ever received such an award," according to a news release put out by the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, where Banks was a senior law fellow after leaving CEQ.
"I don't agree with Dave all of the time on environment policy, but he's smart, pragmatic and a terrific strategist," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the institute. "He'd make a great general."
John Coequyt, the Sierra Club's senior climate and energy representative, paid similar kudos to Banks after he won the award in 2009.
"He worked with the environmental community while he was there to get what he could out of the Bush administration," Coequyt said at the time. "He was straightforward about what the administration was doing and kept the environmental community in the loop and helped us focus on the areas where we could make progress under the Bush administration."
Banks won the Climate Protection Award for his work strengthening the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty, including arguing for the Bush administration's position that hydrofluorocarbons should not be used as a substitute for ozone-depleting chemicals because they are a potent contributor to global warming.
The treaty allows for the control of substitutes to ozone-depleting substances -- like HFCs -- that could cause other environmental problems.
"When he was working for the Bush administration, he was a proponent of this idea," said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. Doniger added that the ozone treaty had been much more effective than the Kyoto Protocol at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Myron Ebell, director of Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which recommended Banks to Inhofe, said his CEQ experience made him a good choice. He said he could not testify to Banks' personal politics and declined to share details of the recommendation he offered Inhofe.
Banks "is a very professional staffer, and I'm sure he will be a very loyal staffer to Senator Inhofe, who does not have a hard time making up his mind on these issues," Ebell said.
Others praised Banks' ability to work across party and ideological lines.
"I wouldn't call him green exactly," said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center. "But I would say that he's very pragmatic and methodical politically."