Policy

US ambassador with coal ties arrives as UN begins climate talks

Craft could mold process by which the U.S. gets out of the Paris climate agreement

Kelly Craft attends her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York for a climate change summit Monday, America’s new ambassador to the global body was focused on other business.

“Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: stop,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his opening remarks. Germany announced climate mitigation pledges. Pope Francis delivered a call to action in a video message. French President Emmanuel Macron praised young people for demanding political action to rein in emissions.

But the U.S. ambassador, Kelly Craft, a longtime Republican donor married to a coal billionaire, did not speak at the climate session. She spoke at a forum about religious freedom instead.

Indeed, Guterres had barred countries he determined had anti-climate agendas from speaking, including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Still, President Donald Trump appeared briefly at the session before heading to the religious freedom event.

As Trump’s representative at the U.N., Craft will wield significant influence over U.S. climate, environmental and foreign policy.  From that post, she will have a loud voice in the U.S. effort to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and could even use her seat on the U.N. Security Council to block climate resolutions.

“There’s an increasing number of climate-related discussions happening within the U.N. system,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. 

Craft’s predecessor, Nikki Haley, was in the president’s Cabinet. But the position has since been downgraded and moved out of the Cabinet, and Meyer said it was unlikely Craft was going to buck the White House on climate topics.

“In this administration, you’re obviously smart to keep your head down,” he said.

Still, Craft, who assumed the office on Sept. 12, could mold the process by which the U.S. gets out of the Paris climate agreement, struck by 197 nations in December 2015 to hold global temperatures from rising a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius or more above pre-industrial levels.

While Trump said in a speech in the White House Rose Garden in June 2017 that the U.S. was leaving the Paris deal, the country cannot formally exit until Nov. 4, 2020 — the day after the next presidential election. The pact stipulates that a participating nation can’t begin the one-year withdrawal process until three years after it took effect on Nov. 4, 2016.

The timeline means Craft could be the Trump administration official to formally withdraw from the Paris deal — a potential boon to her husband, Joe Craft III, and his company, Alliance Resource Partners, one of the biggest coal firms in the country.

Climate science

Unlike the president, Craft has professed to understand climate science.

Craft told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June, at her confirmation hearing, that she would address climate change as America’s liaison to the U.N.

“Climate change needs to be addressed as it poses real risk to our planet,” she said. “Human behavior has contributed to the changing climate. Let there be no doubt: I take this matter seriously, and if confirmed, I will be an advocate for all countries to do their part in addressing climate change.”

Still, lawmakers raised red flags about Craft’s money and the investments and business interests of her husband, a close ally of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

In a May letter, Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey, of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, and Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, raised questions of how her interests in her job at the U.N. may conflict with her and her husband’s financial interests.

A State Department official declined to provide an on-the-record comment regarding Craft’s financial interests and her role at the U.N. Craft has said she will on a case-by-case basis recuse herself from fossil fuel matters.

In an ethics agreement dated May 3, 2019, Craft — who was narrowly confirmed in July —  wrote to Richard Visek, an ethics official at the State Department, saying that she would not participate “substantially” in matters that relate to Alliance Resource Partners, the Bank of Oklahoma or any related companies. Her husband is on the bank’s board.

Craft’s financial disclosure statements show she “personally [has] over $63 million invested in oil, gas and coal assets,” the letter says. “You also hold substantial rights to coal mining royalties in various states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”

Bill Richardson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Bill Clinton, said he could not recall a former ambassador with a comparable conflict of interest or fortune.

“None of us had sizable economic interests, so this may be a first for the U.N. ambassador,” Richardson said by phone, adding that climate issues have swelled at the U.N. in recent years.

“Environmental issues, climate change issues, have increased dramatically at the U.N., because of the Paris Agreement,” Richardson said.

Richard Kauzlarich, a former State Department official in the Reagan administration and former ambassador to Azerbaijan, said Craft will likely receive strict directions from the White House.

“She’s probably going to have instructions from the White House in some fashion on what to say and not to say,” Kauzlarich said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.