As she prepared to step down from her post as the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs on Friday, Kathleen Theoharides announced that she plans to take a job in the renewable energy sector.
In her new role, she will oversee all offshore wind development along the East Coast for the American branch of RWE Renewables — a major, multinational renewable energy firm based in Germany.
Experts say the announcement signals the importance of offshore wind to the northeastern United States’ energy transition, and the seriousness with which the rapidly expanding sector is being treated.
But critics say the move is indicative of a concerning trend in Massachusetts state politics, wherein former state officials go to work for the industries they once regulated.
“I do prefer to see people move on to work for clean and renewable energy rather than the fossil fuel industry,” said Itai Vardi, research and communications manager at the energy think tank Energy and Policy Institute. “But the revolving door is wrong in principle and has to stop.”
Theoharides could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. RWE did not respond to calls or e-mails on Friday.
Theoharides first joined the Baker administration in 2016 as director of climate and global warming solutions at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. She became the secretary of the department in 2019 when her predecessor Matthew Beaton stepped down.
As secretary, Theoharides has spearheaded the state’s environmental efforts, including by “guiding the development of the offshore wind industry,” Governor Baker said last week.
In December, she announced the selection of two new offshore wind projects, Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind, which doubled the amount of wind power secured by Baker’s administration.
Now, Theoharides will work in an industry she championed. RWE Renewables is one of the world’s top clean energy developers. Globally, it boasts that it owns more clean energy capacity than all but three other firms and is the second largest owner of offshore wind capacity, second only to the Danish company Orsted.
Johanna Neumann, a senior campaign director at the environmental advocacy group Environment America, said Theoharides’s new role is a testament to the offshore wind sector’s recent growth.
“When you have senior official from a Republican administration moving into renewables, it just shows that renewable energy has arrived, it’s mainstream and it’s here to stay,” she said.
RWE said in a press release that the former EEA secretary’s portfolio will include overseeing the development of the largest lease area in the New York Bight, a shallow stretch of the Atlantic between Long Island and New Jersey. In a February auction, RWE secured a swatch of ocean there that has the potential to generate enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes, according to the company.
In her new role, Theoharides will also oversee a new research array off the coast of Maine where RWE is developing cutting-edge floating turbine technology, the firm says. The project could become the first floating offshore wind project in the nation, but bringing it online has been an uphill battle because of protests from Maine’s small fishermen, who claim the technology could harm lobster fishing in the area.
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the climate advocacy group Environmental League of Massachusetts, said Theoharides is skilled at navigating issues where many different stakeholders are represent varied interests, as demonstrated through her negotiations of Massachusetts’ landmark 2021 climate roadmap bill and the Transportation Climate Initiative, a regional program that aimed to place a cap on vehicle pollution but that ultimately crumbled last year.
“Her expertise can now help to responsibly harness this massive energy potential and bring it to our grid safely, economically, and in ways that respect the ocean’s many uses,” Turnbull Henry said.
But Vardi of the Energy and Policy Institute said former officials’ ability to move from the public to private sector is a problem. Analysts say the practice can be damaging because former officials have an unfair advantage in influencing regulations in their favor.
“We know that the industry uses the carrot of future employment to influence public officials’ decision-making while they are still in office,” he said.
Massachusetts requires public employees to file disclosures when seeking a new job if their public duties affect or involve a potential employer. The state also has a “forever ban” prohibiting employees from working on specific regulations, contracts, or proceedings for private entities if they ever worked on them in a state capacity. It requires public employees to wait one year before communicating on behalf of nonstate entities about specific state contracts that fell under their purview within their last two years of service. And it has a cooling off period for lobbying, requiring former state employees to wait one year before lobbying the agency for which they worked.
But the state does not place regulations on public employees seeking employment with companies that do not have dealings within Massachusetts. RWE does not currently operate any offshore wind projects in the state of Massachusetts.
Upon his resignation, Theoharides’s predecessor Beaton also took a position in an industry he had previously regulated, working as a consultant for utilities and fossil fuel companies — a move critics questioned at the time.
Vardi said a “key way” to stop the “revolving door” is to mandate “substantial cooling off periods,” prohibiting officials from immediately taking jobs in the industries they regulated.
“The public deserves to know that officials are serving the common good, not narrow industry interests,” he said.
Dharna Noor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.