WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Democrats grilled President Donald Trump’s nominees for the Tennessee Valley Authority on Tuesday about climate change and the administration’s recent firings of top agency watchdogs.
Trump nominated former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland to fill out TVA’s board of directors. The president also named Justice Department attorney Katherine Crytzer to be TVA’s next inspector general.
The three nominees testified Tuesday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee with oversight over TVA. Democrats on the panel sought assurances that the nominees for the board would use their posts to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions and that the inspector general nominee would serve as an independent check on the Trump administration.
If confirmed, Harwell and Noland would fill out the nine-member TVA board of directors, where officials serve five-year terms. The utility provides electricity for 10 million people in Tennessee and six other southeastern states. The nominees appear likely to win approval from the GOP-controlled Senate.
Democrats on the Senate subcommittee asked Harwell and Noland whether they would aim to expand renewable power and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked Harwell whether she questions the conclusions of the 4th National Climate Assessment — a sweeping report that warns of dire impacts of existing and future climate change — or other government reports warning about the threats of climate change.
Harwell, a Republican who served as Tennessee House Speaker from 2011 to 2019 and lost a gubernatorial bid in 2018, offered a cautious response.
“I do believe that the climate is changing and I do think that we need to be aware of it and further scientific study needs to be enacted. But I am committed, as I believe the TVA is, to lower the emissions,” she told Carper.
Both Harwell and Noland said that they would work to ensure that TVA is a national leader in technological innovation and environmental stewardship.
Asked about whether she would commit to fostering investments in solar energy, Harwell told Carper, “I would commit to that, with always in the back of my mind concern for the ratepayers.”
Harwell touted her record as a “fiscal conservative,” pointing to her record in the Tennessee House. “I firmly believe that strong fiscal management is a path to investment and opportunities,” she said in her written testimony.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said he’s concerned about fossil fuel industry representatives attempting to “meddle politically,” and he requested assurances from Harwell and Noland that “if the fossil fuel industry comes peddling political schemes that are not in the best interest of the TVA ratepayers, do not contribute to securing lower rates, that they will not be treated favorably.”
Both Harwell and Noland committed to doing so, and Noland noted that TVA has pledged to hold rates constant through the close of this decade.
The confirmation hearing came as Trump is facing a backlash for removing five officials from posts leading agency inspector general offices in recent weeks.
“If confirmed, Ms. Crytzer will serve as one of the first lines of defense against fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement and misconduct across TVA,” Carper said in a statement released ahead of the hearing. “Over the past several months, the president has unceremoniously removed, reassigned or undermined highly regarded Inspectors General who did not display loyalty or who dared to criticize what they viewed as a flawed or failed response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Crytzer faced questions from both Carper and Whitehouse about whether she would be an independent check on the administration, given the recent controversies.
Whitehouse warned that the ouster of other watchdogs sends a message to other IGs that they must “go along to get along” in the Trump administration.
Pressed by Carper on whether she thinks it’s appropriate for the president to subject inspectors general to public attacks on their credibility, Crytzer deflected questions about the specifics of the recent IG firings.
“I don’t know the full situation for each of those instances that you mentioned, but what I can commit to you today is that if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will do my job to the best of my abilities consistent with the inspector general act and that includes Independence and objectivity,” Crytzer said.