More quickly than almost all of President Joe Biden’s political appointees, Elizabeth Klein became a target for her perceived hostility to oil drilling on public lands.
That perception two years ago sunk her nomination to help lead the Interior Department as deputy secretary. Instead, the veteran of past Democratic administrations stepped behind the scenes, advising Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on water policy issues.
Now, Klein, called Liz by her friends and colleagues, is back in the center of the action on Biden’s energy agenda. As director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a job she started in January, Klein will play an important role in shaping how much oil drilling, and offshore wind farm construction, can happen in the waters off this nation’s shores for years to come.
And suspicion of the Biden administration on oil and gas hasn’t died down. In fact, Klein’s taking the helm of the bureau at a time of heightened tension over the Biden administration’s offshore policies, with both climate activists and Republican lawmakers dissatisfied by the White House’s compromises on oil and gas.
In one of her first interviews as director, Klein downplayed the way she’s been portrayed by the political right, without shying away from her responsibility in carrying out the president’s climate policies.
“My job here is to implement the president’s agenda and his priorities,” she said. “He’s made clear that he thinks we have a responsibility to address what he’s called a ‘climate crisis.’ And so, I intend on doing that.”
BOEM is central to the White House’s climate aims. It’s under a mandate from Biden to approve 16 wind farms by the end of 2024 to help decarbonize the nation’s grid. Klein will also oversee the finalization of BOEM’s five-year program for offshore oil and gas leasing, a much-delayed plan that is guaranteed to be scrutinized by both pro-fossil fuel critics of the White House’s energy agenda and climate activists who want Biden to end offshore development.
Klein’s influence over the nation’s massive offshore oil industry — responsible for roughly 15 percent of the nation’s oil supply — has already provoked some of her earlier critics.
“Her history as a fervent opponent of oil and gas drilling hardly qualifies her as a neutral arbiter to develop our nation’s offshore resources,” Michael Chamberlain, the director of the conservative government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust and who led Nevada communications for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, said in a statement after Klein was announced as BOEM director.
But former colleagues have defended the longtime D.C. lawyer, saying she’s far from the zealot painted by conservatives. They describe a cool-headed and seasoned policy operator who’s worked under four Interior secretaries and juggled some of the department’s thorniest issues.
Chase Huntley, vice president for strategy and policy at the Wilderness Society, said Klein has the “unique skill set” necessary to carry out a president’s agenda, balancing a federal bureaucracy of career employees and a mosaic of federal laws.
“There are few people that understand that really complex interplay as well as Liz,” he said.
An Interior career
Klein got her first job in the federal government as an assistant to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. It was 1999, President Bill Clinton was in the White House, and Klein — recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in economics — found a place at an agency that would shape much of her career.
“That really sparked a lifelong love and interest in Interior Department issues,” she said in an interview about her background and her ambitions with BOEM. “It’s an endlessly fascinating place.”
She went on to get a law degree from American University, spend several years in government relations for the National Park Foundation and take a post at the energy-focused D.C. law firm Latham and Watkins LLP. That firm has been a resume bullet point for other Democratic Interior political hands, including former Biden climate adviser David Hayes and Tommy Beaudreau, who was confirmed as deputy Interior secretary after Klein was removed from contention.
By 2010, Klein returned to the Interior Department of President Barack Obama. Over seven years she climbed in responsibility, from a counselor to then-Deputy Secretary Hayes to an associate deputy secretary and then principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.
With the election of President Donald Trump, Klein followed Hayes to New York University’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center and served as his deputy director. During that time, the two were outspoken critics of the Trump administration’s hyperfocus on deconstructing Obama-era regulations they had often worked on crafting, and on that White House’s “energy dominance” approach to public lands.
Klein’s experiences at Interior reflected some defining moments, from responding to catastrophe to spearheading one of the department’s landmark policies on how to grow renewable energy on public lands.
That included responding to the Los Alamos fire in 2000 — a prescribed fire in New Mexico that spread out of control, a challenging experience for Klein personally. Later, during the Obama administration, she helped develop a massive desert solar program in California that would be a template for future renewable planning on public land. More recently, she’s helped to keep a lid on a flare-up of tensions over water scarcity in the Klamath River region that involved a tangle of Interior and other federal agencies.
By her own admission, high-pressure events and difficult issues are part of what draws Klein to Interior.
When a controlled burn got out of control in 2000 near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, destroying more than 400 homes, the wildfire slammed the Clinton administration’s public image and shook then-Interior Secretary Babbitt.
Babbitt said at the time that the conflagration was “a cascading series of events, like a rock being dislodged down a hill, leading to a landslide.”
For Klein it led to some of her longest days at Interior and shaped how she views the department, its relevance in daily lives across the country and its responsibility in managing a landscape.
With her return to Interior under the Biden administration, Klein is also picking up issues that she left off years ago, such as her leadership role in planning and deploying a renewable energy strategy at scale on public lands in California during the Obama administration.
Speaking during a 2014 state hearing in California, Klein said that, if successful, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — an approach to streamline permitting of solar by deciding early where on a nearly 11 million-acre landscape it makes sense to put commercial-scale projects — could be “exported” to other regions of the country. She stressed that the end goal was one all the stakeholders shared, even if they disagreed in getting there.
“This really is about an issue that’s bigger than all of us. It’s about how do we reduce our reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources,” she said.
The ocean solution to climate change
As BOEM seeks to lift an offshore wind industry in the open ocean, it’s leveraging some of the same tools Klein and others deployed in California.
The approach is in “deconflicting” public lands or waters early, by choosing the places most suitable for energy development and cutting areas that have other values. In California that was a land conflict — in the ocean it’s about fishing grounds, flooded Native American sites and endangered marine mammals.
It’s not a perfect system or an easy one, Klein acknowledged.
“Every square inch of public land and every square inch of the [outer continental shelf] probably has something that could be impacted by development,” she said. “The idea that we’d ever get to zero impact in a place is probably unrealistic. But [you] identify the places that seem to pose the greatest prospects for energy development, and pose the least environmental or other user conflict.”
Under Klein’s Biden administration predecessor, Amanda Lefton, BOEM had been rapidly delineating places for potential offshore wind development, with leases sold off the coast of New York, North Carolina and California. This effort has already sparked some growing pushback, over fishing grounds and how wind affects whale habitats and populations.
There’s a growing opposition force to offshore wind, with critics leveraging a spate of whale deaths to push for a wind moratorium. BOEM scientists have said there is no evidence that pre-wind activities in the Atlantic Ocean are related to whale deaths.
What comes next for BOEM with offshore wind is perhaps the thorniest part of Klein’s deconflicting mission. That’s the vetting of individual wind farm proposals, with even the configuration of turbines sometimes mapped out to try to avoid habitats for sensitive whales, like the endangered North American right whale, as well as fishing areas and vessel traffic routes.
Klein is tasked with getting BOEM through the 16 offshore wind arrays promised by the White House. So far, the bureau has managed just two, both inspiring legal challenges from anti-wind organizers and beach residents.
Klein acknowledged the challenges but said she still views the oceans as a key part of the solution to climate change.
“We move with this sense of urgency to address the climate challenge. But we also are diligent about the reviews we’re doing of individual projects,” she said.
Similarly, BOEM is evolving into a bureau that manages carbon storage, she noted.
The bureau is developing a program to allow companies to inject and store carbon dioxide under the seafloor, leveraging the long history of oil and gas mapping the rock formations under the ocean, data that BOEM has access to.
Regulations that will launch this new offshore carbon storage industry, with several large oil drillers and chemical giants expressing interest in projects, are expected out later this year.
“It points to the idea that we can use the climate challenges before us to create these new opportunities and look at a variety of ways to address climate change,” Klein said.
The politics of oil
So far, Klein’s new role at BOEM hasn’t generated the political heat she faced during her failed confirmation process.
And it may not.
Klein took over BOEM from Lefton, a former clean energy policy adviser in New York who kicked off the Biden administration’s offshore wind goals and never became a high-profile political figure.
Even when BOEM’s promised five-year oil plan lapsed with no replacement in 2022, the ire of Republican lawmakers focused on Interior leadership and the White House more than Lefton.
Hayes noted that Klein as head of BOEM doesn’t have to face the glare of Senate confirmation. That process doomed Klein when she was up for deputy secretary — with opposition featuring an anonymous website attacking her and criticism by key Republican senators.
“She’s not up for Senate confirmation. She’s going to be running this agency just like Amanda did,” he said. “Politics is a big part of the nominating process. And it’s certainly not always fair and right.”
But Klein is now more familiar to lawmakers who are critical of the Biden oil policies, and the lagging five-year plan could continue to draw conservative frustration. The agency recently admitted to a federal judge that a final plan may take until December to finalize.
Meanwhile, leadership in the House Natural Resources Committee has promised to scrutinize Klein’s management and continues to question her experience.
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the new chair of the Natural Resources Committee, once demanded without success to get documents from Interior on Klein’s potential conflicts of interest, and he’s promised to try again.
“Those same conflicts of interest still apply,” Westerman’s spokesperson, Rebekah Hoshiko, said in an email to E&E News, “and we hope to get some answers from the [administration] now that she’s been elevated to this new appointment.”
Former colleagues have defended Klein from partisan attacks, saying her previous work, including her time at the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center helping state attorneys general who challenged Trump administration policies, doesn’t stand out amid dozens of other Democratic political appointees.
Klein said it’s hard to spend much time thinking about the pushback on her career.
“There has been a lot of either bad information or mischaracterization of who I am,” she said.
She chuckled at the findings of an ethics review in early 2021 that — according to documents obtained by Protect the Public’s Trust — had ethics officials at one point debating whether Klein should retain her role as a leader in her daughter’s Girl Scout troop while working for the administration. The office also closely analyzed her past clients and her partner’s for any potential conflicts of interest and potential recusals.
“I’m a proud Girl Scout cookie mom,” Klein joked. “Just note that I do not let that affect my role here at the Department of Interior.”
Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.