Obama-Era Top Lawyer Turns Defender for a Climate-Wrecking Ball

What happens when public servants hang up their roles and stride into the corporate world? They often end up defending the very issues they previously stood against. A prominent case in point is Donald B. Verrilli Jr., once a high-ranking attorney under the Obama administration, now turning his sights to defend a natural gas pipeline – a project that could spur climate change and imperil communities and ecosystems along its path.

Verrilli, who served as solicitor general from 2011 to 2016, now stands as the leading counsel for the company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). The pipeline, if completed, will channel fracked natural gas from northwestern West Virginia through a 303-mile route, ending up at a terminal in southern Virginia. Its construction threatens not just farmland but iconic stretches of wilderness, including the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge mountains.

To give you an idea of the carbon emissions this project might produce, detractors estimate it’s akin to the output of 26 coal-fired power plants. No wonder activists throughout West Virginia and Virginia have been up in arms against the MVP since the plans were first disclosed back in 2014.

Verrilli’s recent mission, however, was to convince the Supreme Court to overturn rulings that temporarily halted the pipeline’s construction. His wish was granted – on July 27, the court greenlit the project in a brief order. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously blocked the pipeline, citing regulators’ flawed decision to approve the project. This verdict was promptly overridden by legislation passed in June, and Verrilli emerged victorious.

The pipeline’s path, it must be mentioned, isn’t devoid of disaster. Case in point, a recent pipeline explosion in Shenandoah County, Virginia, ripped open a crater in preserved Civil War battlefields. David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, warned of similar incidents waiting to happen close to homes along the MVP’s route. Add to that the durability concerns over protective coating on the pipeline and the unstable geology it cuts across, and the risk escalates significantly.

Even after all these warnings, it appears the Biden administration has no plans to halt MVP construction. The current Solicitor General, Elizabeth B. Prelogar, argues that the “timely completion of construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is required in the national interest.”

This raises questions about the so-called revolving door phenomenon Obama once pledged to end. Numerous officials from his administration have found themselves in the corporate world, some even battling regulatory initiatives they once endorsed. One can’t help but question the integrity of such individuals, who seem to switch sides depending on their present job title.

Verrilli isn’t the first to walk this path. Neal Katyal, another former acting solicitor general under Obama, joined the corporate law firm Hogan Lovells, defending NestlĂ© against child slave labor allegations.

The phenomenon Obama promised to “close” in his White House seems to be more of a highway these days, raising questions about what “public service” truly means. For those in positions of power, it seems the line between serving the public and serving corporate interests is thin and easily crossed.