For a decade, he has used open-records laws to pry loose some of the EPA’s secrets. Now Christopher Horner is on the inside, part of President-elect Donald Trump’s landing team at the Environmental Protection Agency, preparing the way for the next administration.
Perhaps no issue will see a greater change Jan. 20 than energy and environmental policy, and the EPA will be the epicenter of that upheaval, moving from a leadership committed to global warming science to a band of skeptics eager to upend the past eight years.
It’s the latest evidence that elections have consequences and in some cases ignite strange chain reactions — such as Mr. Horner being posted to the EPA.
Mr. Horner is one of the Trump transition’s “landing teams,” who are deployed to each department and agency to learn about the latest operations and any in-the-works policies, with the goal of a smooth changeover come Jan. 20.
Some agency transitions can be friendly, and others are more hostile. The appointment of Mr. Horner to the nine-member EPA team suggests that will be one of the latter.
It’s an agency he has pursued relentlessly. One notable target was President Obama’s first EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, whom he exposed as using a secret email alias, “Richard Windsor,” to conduct official government business. Soon after that revelation, Ms. Jackson stepped down.
Mr. Horner also has sought to expose what he sees as improper ties between environmentalists and the EPA, unearthing reams of emails showing backdoor communications, including on private email addresses, between agency bigwigs and activists plotting their next joint policy moves.
All of that has been done from the outside, using the powerful but limited Freedom of Information Act to pry loose what he could.
“He’s been looking to get into this bank vault over the years, and finally somebody just opened the door up and let him walk in,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican Party energy strategist and friend of Mr. Horner’s who previously worked on the Trump transition team.
Mr. Horner declined to speak to The Washington Times for this article, saying he was forbidden by the transition protocols.
The most recent targets in his FOIA battles have been state officials — a number of liberal attorneys general who, he says, teamed up with environmental activists to try to punish climate change skeptics by launching investigations into their activities.
It’s unclear how EPA employees are reacting to the news that Mr. Horner will be on the inside and working alongside them. But his critics outside the agency say they don’t see him as a constructive force.
“Chris Horner has a history of targeting individual scientists and government employees and, through his years of FOIA work, has sought to pull phrases out of context to embarrass people in lieu of actually implementing policy,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. “If the goal at EPA is to work on policy solutions — rather than target individual civil servants — he is an odd and likely ineffective choice.”
Other environmentalists appear to have been shocked into silence. A number of high-profile groups that have battled Mr. Horner over the years have not responded to requests for comment about his appointment.
Robert Sussman, a former high-ranking EPA official who now teaches at Georgetown and Yale universities, told Greenwire, an environmental trade publication, that having Mr. Horner at the agency was a bad sign of things to come in the Trump administration.
“Horner’s record is one of deep hostility to EPA as an institution, and his involvement seems to reflect an inquisitional mindset and not a respectful handoff from one administration to another,” Mr. Sussman told the publication.
He also blasted Mr. Horner’s conclusions over Ms. Jackson’s use of her email alias, calling it a “legitimate and accepted practice.”
Mr. Sussman didn’t respond to an email inquiry from The Times.
Administrators before Ms. Jackson did use secondary email accounts to conduct their business, but there is no evidence that any of them tried to hide their identity behind false accounts as Ms. Jackson did. In one instance, reported by The Times in 2013, Ms. Jackson pretended that “Richard Windsor” was an aide and engaged in a full conversation as “Windsor” promising to get a message to Ms. Jackson.
An effort to reach Ms. Jackson by email last week was unsuccessful.
Mr. McKenna said Mr. Horner’s battles at the EPA were never with rank-and-file employees, but rather with the political appointees at the top who drove the agency’s efforts to extend its regulatory reach to new corners of the American economy.
“The career people at the EPA are generally good folks. The political apparatchiks at EPA — their day of reckoning is at hand,” Mr. McKenna said.
Landing parties are standard practice in transitions. They are made up of people with interest and knowledge in an agency’s area of practice.
Both sides sign agreements promising confidentiality so neither side can meddle in the other’s plans.
But some operations leak, including a massive questionnaire that the Trump transition sent to the Energy Department.
Among other things, the memo asked for names of staffers who worked on global warming issues at the department. Officials at the department balked at providing those answers, and the White House backed them up, saying it appeared the Trump team was targeting career employees for doing their jobs.
The questionnaire was trying to find out who worked on “social cost of carbon” issues. That’s an Obama policy that declares global warming to be of such a magnitude that prognostications of its effects on other parts of society can be used to justify new government regulations.
A group of Democratic senators on Friday demanded an ethics inquiry into the questionnaire.