Last week, the White House announced a slate of nominations to fill roles in the Biden administration. Among them is attorney Neil MacBride, who has been tapped to be general counsel for the Treasury Department.
Right now, MacBride is a partner at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. He formerly served as Biden’s chief counsel on the Senate. Oh, and he once sued the very department he’ll be working in on behalf of energy giant Exxon. For an administration that has pushed a whole of government approach to tackle the climate crisis, it’s an odd choice.
MacBride represented the energy major in 2017 when it sued the government just hours after it got hit with a $2 million fine for violating foreign sanctions. Specifically, U.S. authorities found that the firm was working with Igor Sechin, the president of Russian oil giant Rosneft, who was blacklisted by the U.S. after the nation’s takeover of Crimea from Ukraine. This happened while Rex Tillerson—who President Trump later chose as his secretary of state—was Exxon’s CEO.
Max Moran, research director for the personnel team at the Center for Economic Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said it’s clear Exxon didn’t do this because it couldn’t afford to pay the fine.
“It was a $2 million fine. I did the math, and that is .0001% of Exxon’s earnings that year,” he said. “So it seems like it was really about the principle of the thing, that the Treasury Department’s would dare to defy them on their business.”
The Treasury should play an important role in the Biden administration’s strategy to bring the weight of the government to bear on the climate crisis. The agency advises the White House on all economic matters and sets economic policies and regulations for rich and powerful companies. Like what it did with Exxon, it can also fine those companies for failing to adhere to regulations. Given the manifold threats that climate change poses to the economy and the number of corporate bad actors that have fueled the crisis, the department will have no shortage of work to do.
Within the agency, the general counsel is meant to advise officials on what they can and can’t do to enforce rules. Nominating someone for that role who has fought against fines and regulations on behalf of major companies—including not only Exxon but also automotive corporations, pharmaceutical companies, and the rating agencies and banks behind the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis—doesn’t bode well.
“With MacBride in, that means that this guy is very well-positioned to be constantly telling Treasury they can’t do things or they shouldn’t take action or they shouldn’t do anything that’s going to interrupt, business as usual for his former clients and his probably future clients down the road once he ultimately leaves this job,” said Moran.
Under the right leadership, the Treasury Department could take the lead on not only enforcing stricter economic standards for polluters; it could go even further by helping put an end to fossil fuel subsidies and financing due to their climate risks. The move could inspire similar actions by the world’s other economic heavy hitters. But if he’s confirmed, MacBride’s record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the Treasury will be advised to take the climate crisis as seriously as it should.
“We’re just sending the message that it’s business as usual, and we are not serious on our climate commitments, especially ahead [the UN’s international climate talks known as] COP26 of this November,” Dorothy Slater, research assistant at the Revolving Door Project, said. “I think it’s a message, specifically to corporations, that says ‘you can go ahead and keep doing what you’re doing.’”
On his law firm’s website, MacBride boasts that he “helps clients navigate financial fraud, anti-corruption, money laundering, economic sanctions, False Claims Act violations, securities enforcement, and procurement and tax fraud.” In other words, he’s helped clients avoid the kind of controls that it will be his job to enforce in the Treasury Department.
“Really, the story of his career is defending corporations trying to worm their way around government regulation and be exempted from it,” said Slater.