Politics

Biden Energy secretary pick Jennifer Granholm has past ties to utilities, chemical companies

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Key Points
  • Jennifer Granholm, Joe Biden's expected pick for Energy secretary, has past ties to energy and chemical firms.
  • People familiar with the transition told CNBC that Granholm has a strong record when it comes to clean energy.
  • The Energy Department regulates utility companies, which in the past has included Michigan-based DTE and Consumers Energy.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm appears as a guest on the Current TV cable channel talk show "The Stephanie Miller Show" in Beverly Hills, California August 1, 2012.
Fred Prouser | Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden's expected pick for Energy secretary has ties to several influential political donors, including companies from an industry she may have to regulate if she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic former governor of Michigan, is likely to be formally announced as Biden's choice to lead the Department of Energy.

While she led Michigan from 2003 until 2011, Granholm supported laws that encouraged energy efficiency. Campaign finance records show that her previous stances on energy and other policies have led, in part, to campaign funding from various businesses and their leaders, including DTE Energy.

In 2008, she signed into law a package that would require more electricity to come from renewable sources and curtail competition among power companies, according to a local report at the time.

Since her time as governor, Granholm has been supportive of the idea of electric and autonomous cars and has pushed back on any potential impact the creation of these vehicles could have on jobs.

Biden's campaign energy plan includes a push for a "100% clean energy economy," for the U.S. to reach "net-zero emissions no later than 2050" and for a "historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation."

People familiar with the transition told CNBC that Granholm has a strong record when it comes to clean energy. They said she helped transform Michigan's economy, making her an ideal choice for Energy secretary if she's nominated. Part of her success, these people noted, involved listening to all stakeholders across the spectrum. Granholm would bring that same mindset to running the Department of Energy, they said.

A transition official told CNBC that the Biden administration will hold all officials to the highest ethical standards and ensure transparency. Both the sources and the transition official declined to be named as Granholm has not officially been chosen for the post.

The Department of Energy's office of enforcement "within the General Counsel's Office engages in compliance and enforcement efforts to ensure products sold in the U.S. meet the energy and water conservation standards," according to the department's website. The department regulates utility companies, which in the past has included Michigan-based DTE and Consumers Energy.

The DTE portfolio includes electrical and natural gas utilities as well as "non-utility energy businesses focused on power and industrial projects, natural gas pipelines, gathering and storage, and energy marketing and trading," according to the company's website.

In the buildup to Granholm's 2006 bid for reelection against GOP businessman Dick DeVos, the husband of current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Granholm's campaign saw at least $34,000 from DTE's political action committee, according to Michigan election records reviewed by CNBC.

Between campaign contributions from DTE's company PAC, Granholm appointed Stephen Ewing, the then president and chief operating officer of DTE Energy Gas, to the board of Michigan's Early Childhood Investment Corporation. Ewing separately gave $3,400 in 2004 to Granholm's campaign, records show.

The ECIC was created in 2005 to "increase public and private investment in the earliest years, to elevate issues affecting young children and their families, and continuously improve Michigan's comprehensive early childhood system."

The ECIC is run, in part, by the executive committee, which is selected by Michigan's governor. Although it remains unclear the exact date of Ewing's appointment, the ECIC website says board members serve three-year terms. The press release announcing Ewing's appointment says his term expired in 2008.

DTE has said it wants to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 for both its electric and gas companies. The nonprofit Energy News Network reported that critics of the proposal point to a DTE executive compensation package potentially at odds with the company's carbon neutral goal because, the site says, it encourages company leaders to keep open their coal plants.

CMS Energy also supported Granholm's runs for governor. The company PAC contributed at least $25,000 between 2004 and 2006.

"CMS Energy Corporation's business strategy is focused primarily on its principal subsidiary, Consumers Energy Company, Michigan's largest electric and natural gas utility, serving 6.7 million of the state's 10 million residents," the company website says.

Meanwhile, one of Granholm's former top aides on energy policy, Brandon Hofmeister, is still listed as an executive at CMS' Consumers Energy Company, with a title of senior vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs. Hofmeister could end up joining the Energy Department to be one of Granholm's advisors.

As governor, Granholm also took a strong stance on the environment and climate change, something that could come into play if she becomes Energy secretary. Yet, in 2003 Granholm's campaign took $5,000 from the Dow Chemical employee political action committee. Dow, which is headquartered in Michigan and completed a merger with chemical giant DuPont in 2017, has been under scrutiny for years.

After her second term as governor ended in 2011, Granholm joined the Dow board and later quit to host "The War Room" on former vice president Al Gore's Current TV.

Dow's former CEO, Andrew Liveris, was the head of President Donald Trump's manufacturing council. The company reportedly pushed Trump to ignore a study by scientists that claimed Dow's pesticides are harmful to nearly 2,000 animal species.

In 2019, the company reached a $77 million settlement with the federal government, the state of Michigan and a Native American tribe. A report by Reuters says the money will go toward environmental restoration projects and resolve a lawsuit that accused Dow of releasing hazardous chemicals.

Dow has been criticized by environmentalists for previously polluting Michigan's water. The Environmental Protection Agency says chemicals from Dow's plant "have resulted in on- and off-site contamination." The "[o]ff-site contamination extends over 50 miles downstream through the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and into Saginaw Bay," the EPA report says.

Before joining the company's board, Granholm as governor hailed the creation of a $665 million Dow plant in Michigan that would focus on battery production. "It's a revolution to lead the nation," Granholm told a crowd during the 2009 unveiling of the project. The plant went online in 2011 and was expected to employ at least 800 people.

Granholm called Liveris a "great visionary leader" at the time.

Granholm and the companies mentioned in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

During her successful fight for reelection, Granholm also saw contributions from an array of big-money donors from across the country, including many on Wall Street and in Hollywood.

Josh Bekenstein, the current co-chair of investment juggernaut Bain Capital, gave $3,400 to Granholm's campaign in 2005. That same year her campaign saw equal contributions from Roger Altman, founder of the investment firm Evercore, and billionaire George Soros.

Before Valerie Jarrett became a key advisor for President Barack Obama, she gave $3,000 to Granholm's campaign in 2005. Then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was recently chosen by Biden to be special presidential envoy for climate, held a fundraising lunch in 2006 for Granholm at his home in Boston. Michigan records show that the Kerry event raised over $12,000 for Granholm's reelection campaign.

In that same year, Granholm's campaign held a fundraiser at the Washington home of Vernon Jordan, who has been an executive for years at Lazard, an asset management firm. Jordan has also been close to former President Bill Clinton. The 2006 event raised over $35,000 for Granholm's campaign, records say.

Other big donors in 2005 and 2006 included Hollywood executive Ari Emanuel, then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Hyatt Hotels billionaire heiress and eventual Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, asset manager Steve Rattner, the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and the since-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.