White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy is reportedly preparing to step down from her position coordinating the Biden’s administration’s climate agenda sometime in the coming months. President Joe Biden tapped McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to serve in the cabinet-level position in 2020, hoping that his pick for the first-ever national climate adviser would reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. Though no official decision has been made, McCarthy’s deputy, Ali Zaidi, is widely expected to replace her.
Zaidi, who could soon take over the country’s top climate policy job, spent the Trump years working for Big Law firms where he represented and provided legal services to dozens of fossil fuel companies and the private equity giants quietly profiteering from the climate crisis and financing fossil fuel expansion. Previously, Zaidi served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017, holding several climate-focused jobs in the White House before swinging through the revolving door. He landed at big corporate law firms like Kirkland & Ellis, a right-wing firm that acts as a “holding pen” between Republican administrations, and Morrison & Foerster, where he used his expertise to advance the interests of oil and gas giants and private equity tycoons.
Climate activists and policy experts warn that the nation’s top climate coordination position should be filled by someone who can stand up to the powerful fossil fuel industry, and that Zaidi’s record is disqualifying. “Fossil fuels have to end in order for our planet to survive,” Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program, told The Nation. “Anyone who doesn’t have that principled position, and who can’t stand up to fossil fuel bullies and the financial monster that funds fossil fuels, will backslide and not accomplish what we need for a clean energy future on a ticking time bomb like climate.”
“The problem with this position is that it hasn’t been politicized enough,” Su added. “And I think there’s a real confusion about who is calling the shots in the administration. What we do know is that the administration has been self-contradictory since they came into office.”
According to the firm’s website, Kirkland & Ellis, counsels clients on “mitigating and managing” environmental, social, and governance risks to their business, and “on complex regulatory matters related to climate change.” As E&E News reported last year, Zaidi himself did legal work for several fossil fuel companies, including Callon Petroleum Company, Midstates Petroleum Company, Mission Coal Company, and Murray Energy, according to publicly available financial disclosure forms. He also provided legal services to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid and was partially responsible for the 2021 freeze. “Zaidi’s history of representing fossil fuel corporations is completely disqualifying,” Dorothy Slater, a senior researcher at the Revolving Door Project, told The Nation.
“There is no excuse for Biden’s top climate adviser to be sympathetic to oil, gas, and coal, which Zaidi clearly is, judging by his representation of companies like Murray Coal. A revolver like Zaidi shouldn’t have a position influencing climate policy at all, and based on Biden’s failure on climate so far, he is in no way deserving of a promotion.”
Kirkland & Ellis, a favorite of the fossil fuel industry, defended BP against a 2020 suit by workers and coastal residents claiming they had developed health problems as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which killed 11 workers and released nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In a separate case, Kirkland represented BP against fishing businesses and others who had sued the company in the aftermath of the oil spill. The lawyer on that case, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, defended the fossil fuel industry so effectively that he landed a job as Trump’s assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources.
Aside from its work for major oil and gas corporations facing class action lawsuits, Kirkland & Ellis also specializes in advising private equity, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. The firm has worked for firms like Sun Capital Partners and Blackstone, proving especially lucrative for the world’s highest-grossing law firm. At Kirkland & Ellis, Zaidi himself provided legal services to the Blackstone Group, one of the dirtiest firms in the industry and a driving force behind the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Blackstone co-owns “one of the dirtiest” coal plants in the United States and multiple pipelines “that slush oil and gas” across the country, according to a February report by the nonprofits LittleSis and the Private Equity Stakeholder Project. He also directly advised firms like Bain Capital, KKR, Madison Dearborn Partners, and the Carlyle Group, which has about $24 billion invested in over six dozen fossil fuel companies.
Under the Obama administration, Zaidi served as the Domestic Policy Council’s deputy director for energy policy; associate director for natural resources, energy, and science at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB); and policy aide to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. As a senior member of Obama’s OMB, Zaidi oversaw “critical aspects” of the president’s climate plan, which he also helped design. In 2017, he joined Morrison & Foerster, a firm that helps corporations violating environmental regulations, as a shadow lobbyist. When Morrison & Foerster announced that it had hired Zaidi as a Washington-based senior adviser on climate-related matters, specifically “helping the firm’s lawyers advise clients on legislation, regulation and policy issues related to global warming and clean energy development,” it praised his government experience.
Morrison & Foerster said Zaidi’s hiring came as companies were “rethink[ing] their energy moves under the Trump administration.” Chris Carr, chairman of Morrison & Foerster’s Environment and Energy Group, said in a statement that Zaidi was “steeped in the complex, cross-sectoral issues surrounding clean energy policy, technology, and markets,” and had “exactly the right experience and expertise that our clients need to navigate any regulatory changes and advance their interests.”
What sorts of regulatory issues does Morrison & Foerster help its clients navigate? In addition to helping companies get permits for drilling and mining, the firm actively defends companies that dump toxic waste, spill chemicals, and pollute the environment. They even advise clients on how to “construct and refine marketing claims” to make their companies sound environmentally friendly while avoiding false advertisement suits. “We have extensive experience with complex litigation under the US Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability (CERCLA) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts (RCRA),” Morrison & Foerster says on its website. “We help our clients defend these claims and related contribution and cost-recovery actions; we’ve even asserted a few to make our clients’ burdens more tolerable by sharing the pain with other responsible parties. We have also litigated and settled several hazardous waste enforcement actions brought against manufacturers and leading retailers.”
During his time at Morrison & Foerster, Zaidi was also a board member at the Center for Carbon Removal, a climate policy NGO (now known as Carbon180) that lobbied for the same engineered carbon removal supported by ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and more. Despite the hype around carbon removal, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that relying on carbon capture technologies poses a “major risk” to meeting climate targets.
In 2016, at an Atlantic Council event on corporate emissions strategies, Zaidi put his views on the climate crisis succinctly. “It’s not the government’s job to tell CEOs how to run their businesses,” he said, in response to a question about corporations that use a shadow price of carbon in their decision making.