Controversial hire raises questions about coal export plans in Washington.
In a classic instance of the revolving door between government and industry, Governor Inslee has decided to hire Matt Steuerwalt as the director of his policy office effective May 1. In recent years, Steuerwalt has acted as a lead lobbyist for coal-fired power in Washington, as well as for a now-defunct coal export proposal. The news was first announced by Steuerwalt in a mass email sent last night.
The state is now wrestling with two major policy issues connected to coal: whether to permit large-scale coal export terminals and whether to phase out coal-fired electricity imported from other states. Given that Steuerwalt has recently been a paid lobbyist in support of coal in Washington, the move raises question about whether he will use his influence in the Inslee administration to advance an agenda more favorable to the coal industry.
Steuerwalt was formerly Gov. Gregoire’s top advisor on energy and climate issues, but he left the Gregoire administration to go to work for Strategies 360, a well-connected lobbying and PR shop. He then led negotiations against his former employer on behalf of TransAlta, a giant Canadian energy company that was wrangling with the Gregoire administration over plans to ramp down coal-burning at its power plant in Centralia. He also lobbied on behalf of TransAlta in both the House and Senate.
As the TransAlta negotiations were wrapping up, Steuerwalt went to work for coal again, this time as the lead lobbyist for a coal export project on Washington’s coast, as Sightline reported in late 2012. At the time, RailAmerica was proposing to export 5 million tons of coal annually from Marine Terminal 3 at the Port of Grays Harbor. After months of delay and confusion, the plan collapsed.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that Steuerwalt will serve as the coal industry’s voice in the Inslee administration. During his time with the Gregoire administration he made key contributions to a number of clean energy and carbon reduction efforts. Notably, he was an advocate for Washington’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative, a multi-state and province compact to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Steuerwalt’s biography on the Strategies 360 website says:
Many of his projects involve extremely complex permitting issues involving communities, policymakers, the media and a wide range of stakeholders. He is actively engaged in regional and national policy formation, and maintains strong ties to policymakers.
According to InfluenceExplorer.com, a website database that tracks the influence of money in politics, Steuerwalt has given thousands of dollars to election campaigns for state politicians, mostly to Democrats. Notably, he contributed $250 in support of then-Congressman Inslee in 2009-10 and another $950 in 2011-12.
Neither Steuerwalt nor the Governor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment on this story.
Update 1:10 pm: Governor Inslee’s director of media relations, Jaime Smith, emailed me with the following response:
The choice of a policy director will have no impact on the state’s role in reviewing coal export projects. The governor has a longstanding and well-known position on carbon pollution and climate change and he has directed the Department of Ecology to conduct a rigorous review of current coal projects to the full extent allowed under state law. None of that will change when Matt assumes his new role May 1.