Interior insiders brace for Beaudreau’s exit

By Michael Doyle, Hannah Northey, Jennifer Yachnin, Robin Bravender | 10/05/2023 01:23 PM EDT

The deputy secretary was a key player in the department’s most contentious issues.

Tommy Beaudreau. Photo credit: Francis Chung/E&E News

Tommy Beaudreau during his confirmation hearing to be the Interior Department's deputy secretary on Capitol Hill on April 29, 2021. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau took on some of the toughest jobs during his two-plus years as the department’s second in command.

With Interior Secretary Deb Haaland most visible on conservation and tribal matters, it’s often been Beaudreau spotted in the middle of minerals, oil and gas strategy, drought policy, and other bottom-line matters.

Those issues have seemed a natural fit for the former Latham & Watkins attorney whose clients while in private practice included the likes of Dominion Resources and Vineyard Wind. The Interior Department veteran — he spent almost seven years at the agency during the Obama administration — has appeared equally comfortable on Capitol Hill, even amid constant political crossfire.


“He’s a consummate professional, and we’re lucky he dedicated 10 years of his career to public service,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “Nobody does those jobs to make money. We need more Tommy Beaudreaus to come into public service.”

Indeed, far from making money, Beaudreau took a big pay hit in joining Interior, with his 2021 financial disclosure statement identifying his 35 clients and nearly $2.4 million in partnership shares during the prior 14-month period. His annual salary as deputy secretary is currently about $212,000.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, echoed a number of others in praising Beaudreau for maintaining a “pragmatic and steady hand over a sprawling department,” citing his work on wildlife migration corridors and Colorado River basin water.

But Beaudreau’s juggling act atop a department with some 70,000 employees also draws some conflicting assessments.

His relationship with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland struck some department observers as professional but never close. He’s had to deal with a White House where other appointees also have strong opinions and the wherewithal to advance them. And, at times, opponents have simply made his life unpleasant.

“How do you go to bed at night?” one activist with the group Climate Defiance shouted at him on a New York City street during a videotaped confrontation last month’s United Nations climate summit. ““How do you look yourself in the mirror, man?”

An influential deputy

A deputy Interior secretary’s influence is not something written into statute. The clout, for good or for ill, must be earned.

“Technically, the deputy secretary is delegated the ability to exercise all of the secretary’s authority, but as a matter of reality, in different administrations, the impact of the deputy secretary is determined by the wishes of the secretary,” former Trump administration Interior Secretary David Bernhardt noted.

Bernhardt, himself a former deputy, added that “some secretaries have placed the actual center of strength of the department in the deputy secretary while others placed it with the chief of staff or someone else. As a result, some have stronger deputies, and some have weaker deputies.”

Another former Interior deputy, David Hayes, said that Beaudreau has been effective in a “uniquely challenging position” given Interior’s “multiple bureaus with enormous responsibilities” and sometimes-conflicting missions.

Hayes, who also served in the Biden administration White House, called Beaudreau’s “high water mark’” his work on cajoling “multiple states and tribes with conflicting interests to work together” to address the historic drought in the Colorado River Basin.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt likewise praised Beaudreau’s role in leading land and energy policy matters during his tenure, stating that “Tommy has been a very effective leader.”

Beaudreau, who will leave his current job by the end of October, had previously earned his spurs in the Obama administration, serving as the first director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as well as chief of staff to former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and as acting assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management.

For all that, he was the Biden administration’s second choice for the deputy’s slot, with his nomination coming after the administration’s first pick, attorney Elizabeth Klein, faced stiff GOP resistance on Capitol Hill.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, both strong-willed energy industry proponents, made it clear they were more comfortable with Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska.

Once in place at Interior, Beaudreau dug into the nitty-gritty. Tom Jensen, a partner with the law firm Perkins Coie, recalled dealing with Beaudreau on complex electrical transmission issues.

“He has always struck me as exceptionally well-informed on the arcane substance matter,” Jensen said. “He was never intimidated by the words on the page or the intensity of the stakeholder concerns.”

Daniel Jorjani, solicitor in the Trump administration’s Interior Department, likewise said that Beaudreau “did a solid job under difficult circumstances,” citing in part his having “delivered a modest victory for his home state of Alaska with the Willow Project.”

Last March, the administration approved ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion Willow project that will allow three drilling sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Beaudreau signed the record of decision, with Biden administration officials insisting that ConocoPhillips’ long-held leases legally tied their hands.

Some environmentalists consider the green light an unforgivable black mark.

“Good riddance to Tommy Beaudreau, his deeply troubling conflicts of interest and his dangerous brand of revolving-door cronyism,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Michael Greenberg, founder of the activism group Climate Defiance, also hailed Beaudreau’s resignation.

“It shows that there’s no place in polite society for people who commit climate crimes,” Greenberg said.

Other environmental advocates offer a more nuanced view of the man that Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program, said will be “tough to replace.”

During the Biden transition, Beaudreau was one of the environmental community’s top choices for the deputy secretary post, Manuel said. And though Manuel says that the Willow Project is one Beaudreau “got wrong,” he saw it in context.

“I do feel they felt hemmed in and they’d be liable to legal action probably if they didn’t approve it,” Manuel said. “I think he probably did the best he could with the hand he was dealt on that one.”

Minerals and water

Beaudreau’s exit complicates the Biden administration’s effort to reform the U.S. mining sector, just as the nation scrambles to secure minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries and other renewable technologies. He has been leading the charge and facing off with frustrated senators and mining executives who argue proposals to impose a leasing system or royalties on hardrock mining would chill investment.

“He was one of the few people sophisticated enough to help broker a compromise between the need to access critical minerals and facilitate that access, to make it easier to get them but also to reform the 1872 mining law,” said Wood with Trout Unlimited.

Aaron Mintzes, the senior policy counsel for conservation group Earthworks, said he’s hopeful that an agreement will be reached, even in Beaudreau’s absence, and that the interagency work group’s report clearly lays out what steps the federal government must take to update mining rules.

Beaudreau also played a key role in negotiating recent emergency measures in the Colorado River Basin, where severe drought had threatened to halt hydropower operations at both Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Interior is now preparing long-term operating plans for the river, which must be in place by late 2026, and Beaudreau had been expected to continue to helm those discussions.

But John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said that while he appreciated Beaudreau’s leadership in past negotiations, that Camille Calimlim Touton, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, is in place to help the states reach a long-term deal.

Upper Colorado River Commission Director Chuck Cullom agreed that Beaudreau’s absence should not slow the pace of ongoing negotiations.

“I don’t think he would leave if he felt there was a crisis,” Cullom said, asserting that Beaudreau leaves in place a team of Interior officials engaged in the next round of planning.

“A lot of his work history has been in crisis management, and as he has said on numerous occasions, people are rarely happy when they see him walk in the room,” Cullom said. “ In this context, he’s confident in his team, and now’s the time to take a step back and breathe.”

Who’s next?

President Joe Biden could opt from a host of internal candidates to replace Beaudreau, as well as individuals outside the administration.

Babbitt, the former secretary, said that the White House should move swiftly to tap a replacement, suggesting that given Haaland’s legislative background, her second in command should be someone who comes from the agency itself.

“It is a critical position,” Babbitt said. “In the fourth year of an administration … I would think she would want to pick someone from within the department who has good personal skills and a substantial amount of operational experience.”

He added that were he in Haaland’s position now he would “definitely want to stay within the department and have somebody who is really up to speed.”

Practically speaking, though, the choice won’t necessarily be Haaland’s to make. It is likely to be a White House call, with the president’s 2024 reelection campaign a prime consideration.

Among the potential candidates could be those who have already been confirmed by the Senate for other posts, though officials like Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Mineral Management Laura Daniel-Davis — who has herself faced considerable opposition on the Hill — would likely encounter GOP resistance. With the deputy’s job customarily described as being the department’s chief operating officer, day-to-day administrative competence is likely to be a more qualification than raw political appeal.

Robert Dillon, a public policy advisor at ConservAmerica and a former staffer to Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, predicted a tough confirmation battle for whomever is nominated to take Beaudreau’s place.

“I think this will be a flashpoint for Congress in the very near future,” Dillon said.

But there is another alternative that avoids the hassles of a confirmation hearing.

“The reality is, since we’re near the end of the first term, [Biden] can leave it vacant or have someone who’s acting between now and the election,” said Bill Snape, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Under the Vacancies Act, an “acting officer” can fill an empty position for up to 210 days, beginning on the date an office is declared vacant.

“The president has disappointed his base tremendously on fossil fuels and federal public lands,” asserted Snape, who is also senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a chance to finally find someone who can help him meet his own campaign goals on phasing out fossil fuels on public lands, and he’s in a good position to do so because of the timing of it.”

Opting not to nominate a permanent successor to Beaudreau would also circumvent the problem of selecting a candidate who could appease Manchin and other lawmakers.

“The Senate can’t do anything about it really but complain,” Snape said.

Correction: This story was updated after publication to correct a reference to Chris Wood’s job.