This story was updated at 5:21 p.m. EDT.
President Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department’s mining agency has withdrawn his nomination, blaming a process with no end in sight and confusion at the Office of Government Ethics.
J. Steven Gardner, a Kentucky mining consultant, was nominated to become the next director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) in late 2017 but never got a hearing on Capitol Hill (Greenwire, Oct. 26, 2017).
He was among several Interior picks whose nominations were caught up in a hold placed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in protest of the department’s offshore drilling plan (E&E Daily, Jan. 30).
But the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee never received Gardner’s required paperwork, majority spokeswoman Nicole Daigle said, so a confirmation hearing was never scheduled.
Gardner cited problems with the Office of Government Ethics. In April, he told E&E News he had submitted all required information but was still waiting to receive an ethics agreement.
"This decision was very difficult for me and comes after almost a year of back and forth with [OGE] over the conditions for an ethics agreement," Gardner said in a statement today. "Now, I have reached the point that the uncertainty of when confirmation would actually take place, numerous reversals by OGE of conditions, unknown financial implications, and unknown final conditions have led me to make the decision to withdraw."
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift referred questions about the nomination to the White House, which had not responded at the time of publication.
OGE spokeswoman Elizabeth Horton declined to comment, saying the independent agency does not discuss specific individuals.
Gardner, president and CEO of Lexington-based ECSI LLC, said he believed he could have made a difference at the Interior mining office based on his numerous interactions with the agency over his four decades working in the coal industry.
"I have many friends in [OSMRE], state governments and knowledge of the program. That is why I am saddened by the necessity to make this decision," he said. "It is time to move on to refocus on my business and family and recoup some of the opportunities lost from the last year of uncertainty."
When his name surfaced as a possible OSMRE nominee in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election victory, Gardner’s industry roots won him support from regulators and coal companies but immediate criticism from Obama-era OSMRE officials and environmental groups (Greenwire, Nov. 16, 2016).
Gardner feuded publicly with the Obama administration after OSMRE declined to renew a contract with his firm to analyze the Stream Protection Rule, which the GOP-led Congress and Trump have since killed.
Gardner accused OSMRE of firing him after his firm determined the regulation would eliminate thousands of jobs. The agency argued that ESCI had failed to cite anything beyond its own expert opinions.
His vehement opposition to the rule, combined with a series of controversial statements, had environmental groups gearing up for a confirmation battle that never came (Greenwire, Dec. 11, 2017).
"A review of his background reflected he was riddled with conflicts of interest," Citizens Coal Council Executive Director Aimee Erickson said. "It is critical that OSMRE has a director who believes in the mission of the agency."
Gardner has questioned humans’ role in climate change and called mining "accelerated erosion," vehemently defending the controversial practice of mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.
"OSMRE needs a director who will benefit coal-impacted communities," said Erin Savage, a program manager for advocacy group Appalachian Voices. "We hope this will be an opportunity to find that individual."
Gardner’s first champion, the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, was "sorry" to learn of the withdrawal.
"Steve was imminently qualified for the position and would have done an excellent job," said Executive Director Tom Clarke, who took over the trade group for state mining regulatory agencies in January from predecessor Greg Conrad, who fully retired in April.
Clarke praised the states’ working relationship with OSMRE.
"I wouldn’t say that we’re disappointed to be working with [acting Director] Glenda Owens and the people who are there now," he said, "but we believed that Steve was a good choice … and we would have expected him to do good things."