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Failing Up: Blocked Biden Nominee Now Overseeing White House Effort To Potentially Shutter Major Energy Source

Shortly after Laura Daniel-Davis failed Senate confirmation for the second time last year, the White House appointed her to serve as the second in command at the Department of the Interior—a promotion. Now, she has been given yet another senior role crafting energy policy potentially impacting millions of Americans.

Last month, the White House created a new task force to oversee the government’s controversial review of four federally managed dams located within the Columbia River system in southern Washington State. The task force’s work could ultimately lead to the dams, which provide power to millions of residents and allow large quantities of agricultural products to be transported, being torn down over environmental concerns.

Buried in the announcement was the revelation that Daniel-Davis, the Interior Department’s acting deputy secretary, will co-chair the task force alongside Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for fisheries Janet Coit.

The announcement came nearly eight months after Daniel-Davis was promoted to her current role in an “acting” capacity and President Joe Biden withdrew her nomination to be an assistant secretary at the Interior Department. Daniel-Davis, who had served in a principal deputy assistant secretary role, was removed from consideration after her nomination faced bipartisan opposition and, as a result, failed to clear two separate Senate committee votes.

Daniel-Davis’s appointment is the latest example of a Biden administration official failing up after receiving stout opposition in the Senate. And it puts a spotlight on the administration’s ongoing closed-door efforts to study the effects of the four dams, efforts that lawmakers and industry groups in the region have warned could result in the eventual destruction of the vital dams.

Laura Daniel-Davis (doi.gov)

It also represents a potential conflict of interest for Daniel-Davis. Between 2018 and 2020, she served as vice president and chief of policy at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)—an eco advocacy group and the lead plaintiff in high-profile litigation against the federal government, challenging the continued operation of the four dams in question. She worked for NWF as it pursued the litigation.

In her current position, Daniel-Davis was notably involved in a secretive agreement late last year with NWF to pause that litigation while the issue is reviewed by the White House task force she has now been tapped to lead, according to federal court filings reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.

“The placement of an unqualified political appointee to a task force with no authorization and no purpose further underscores how out of touch the Biden administration is with the needs of the northwest,” Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), a senior member of the Senate Energy Committee, told the Free Beacon. “I opposed Daniel-Davis’ nomination to the Department of the Interior twice. Failure to pass the Senate alone should disqualify her from any roles in this administration, let alone overseeing the biased Columbia River Task Force.”

“I can’t reiterate this enough—Congress, and Congress alone, can authorize removal of the four lower Snake River Dams,” Risch said. “Given this administration’s continued efforts to breach the dams despite their many benefits including hydropower’s clean, reliable, always-on energy, Daniel-Davis’ appointment is disappointing. I will continue to fight this administration’s efforts to dismantle our federal hydropower system at every turn.”

The lower Snake River dams are essential to the Pacific Northwest economy—they provide power to millions of residents and enable barges transporting mainly agriculture goods to travel freely. The dams, built in the 1960s and 1970s by the Army Corps of Engineers, provide about 8 percent of Washington State’s electricity, enough to serve millions of residents, and allow for the transport of a staggering 40 percent of the nation’s total wheat production.

Democrats, environmental activists, and Native American tribes, however, have long called for the dams to be breached, or torn down, arguing that they inhibit salmon and steelhead populations from migrating. According to Earthjustice, a left-wing outfit that has joined NWF’s litigation, man-made dams are the biggest threat to salmon and have downstream impacts on other species, such as orcas, which feed on the salmon.

NWF and several other activist groups and tribes in November signed a confidential mediation agreement regarding the dams with the Biden administration, according to court records. Daniel-Davis signed the document on behalf of the Department of the Interior. Her signature appears on the document alongside that of NWF vice president for conservation policy Abby Tinsley, who worked with—and ultimately succeeded—Daniel-Davis at NWF.

Under the mediation agreement, plaintiffs agreed to stay their years-long litigation through 2028 while the federal government agreed to devote $1 billion to wild fish restoration and clean energy power development.

The White House stopped short of backing any plan to breach the dams, but it said its investments, unveiled in the mediation document, would ensure energy reliability and transportation “in the event” that the dams are breached. That sentiment was reiterated by administration officials after the Columbia River Task Force was established in June.

“Acknowledging the devastating impact of federal hydropower dams on tribal communities is essential to our efforts to heal and ensure that salmon are restored to their ancestral waters,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

The White House also named Nik Blosser to be the task force’s executive director. Blosser, who served as former Oregon governor Kate Brown’s (D.) chief of staff between January 2017 and November 2020, was in the position when Brown publicly endorsed breaching the dams to “address immediate needs of orcas and salmon.”

The Department of the Interior also released a report that noted the “estimated benefits of dam breach” and cited research that found a plan to breach the dams presents “greatest opportunity for restoring Snake River stocks.”

The creation of the task force, the mediation agreement, and the Interior Department’s report are all prongs of Biden’s broader plan to prioritize the restoration of salmon, steelhead, and other native fish populations in the Columbia River Basin. The president outlined that plan in a Sept. 2023 presidential memo.

Biden’s actions have earned rebukes from lawmakers such as Risch and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R., Wash.), as well as industry groups. Those groups include the Public Power Council, an association of electric utilities in the Pacific Northwest; the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which represents navigation, transportation, trade, and agriculture interests; and Northwest RiverPartners, which represents power providers across seven Northwestern states.

“We are asserting that Northwest public power must be included as a meaningful part of the Task Force’s efforts going forward,” the Public Power Council’s executive committee wrote in a July 2 letter to Biden, noting that it hasn’t been consulted. “Our utilities collectively bring decades of invaluable experience balancing complex power grid objectives with those critical to increasing salmon abundance.”

The Department of the Interior and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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