Feb 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Energy deputy secretary nominee faces heat after contradicting Trump

Mark Menezes speaks at a forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 12. Photo: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Trump administration officials are internally raising concerns about President Trump’s nominee for Energy deputy secretary, who appeared to openly contradict the president on nuclear waste storage at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain last week.

Driving the news: While speaking at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last Wednesday, Mark Menezes told members of the panel that the Trump administration is still interested in storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and that “what we're trying to do is to put together a process that will give us a path to permanent storage at Yucca."

  • His statement came just weeks after Trump tweeted that he hears and respects Nevadans’ concerns about the nuclear waste repository — part of a long-standing “not in my backyard” battle. “[M]y Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches – I’m confident we can get it done!” Trump said.
  • Menezes’ remarks also came just days after the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2021 budget, which does not include funding for Yucca Mountain. The administration’s previous budget requests included $120 million and $116 million, respectively, to maintain licensing for the site.

What we’re hearing: Menezes’ comments were flagged internally to White House officials who have been working on Yucca Mountain, an administration official told Axios.

  • “It’s a big deal that the possible No. 2 at the Department of Energy came out in defiance [of] the president’s very strong position on a huge issue," the official said, calling it "shocking" that Menezes would "basically give a middle finger to the president."
  • A second administration official told Axios that Menezes knew for weeks that funding for Yucca Mountain was going to be seized, adding to internal frustration over his comments last week: “When the budget comes out, and it has made a change from previous years, everyone's notified of that. Department of Energy is clearly in the know about that because it’s a core change.”

The other side: “I have spoken to the White House and the Administration will not be pursuing Yucca Mountain as a solution for nuclear waste, and there are no funds in the budget to do so. I am fully supportive of the President’s decision and applaud him for taking action when so many others have failed to do so,” Menezes told Axios.

  • A White House official said, "There is zero daylight between the President and Under Secretary Menezes on the issue."

Why it matters: Trump’s comments about Yucca Mountain, as well as his decision to cease funding for the repository, come as his re-election campaign seeks to turn Nevada red again after narrowly losing the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

  • As the New York Times first reported, two of Trump’s top political advisers, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, have opposed storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain for years, and they see the president’s decision to side with Nevada residents as positive for his re-election campaign.
  • Trump heads to Nevada this week, where he'll host a rally in Las Vegas on the eve of the Nevada Democratic caucus and speak at a Hope for Prisoners graduation ceremony at police department headquarters. He’ll stay overnight at his hotel on the Strip.

The backstory: Menezes, currently the Energy undersecretary, was officially nominated as deputy secretary on Thursday, a day after his remarks before members of Congress.

  • However, administration officials say these nominations are normally planned weeks before being announced.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add Menezes' response.

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