The Biden State Department Nominee Who Worked for Saudi Arabia and Big Oil
President Joe Biden’s Clean Energy Future Plan takes former President Donald Trump to task for “irresponsible trade policies and consistent siding with oil lobbyists over American growers.” But one of Biden’s own top State Department nominees, Jose Fernandez, previously worked for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and oil giants like Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and the multinational oil and gas company SK E&P, his financial disclosure forms reveal. Once confirmed, Fernandez will be charged with leading the State Department’s environmental and “economic growth” policies abroad.
Fernandez, who in March was officially nominated to be the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, provided “legal services” to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund while he was a partner at the law firm Gibson Dunn. He also disclosed that he has done separate legal work for a number of oil companies and owns stock in fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Sempra Energy, and the Southern Company.
But these publicly available disclosure forms—which only require officials to disclose clients they had over the past year—provide an insufficient view into the true nature of their activities, said Elias Alsbergas of the Revolving Door Project, a group that tracks the private sector conflicts of elected officials. The State Department declined to comment on questions about Fernandez’s previous work or potential conflicts of interest.
Gibson Dunn was a registered lobbyist for the government of Saudi Arabia for years, and didn’t stop lobbying against US legislation on behalf of the kingdom until 2018, when international uproar over the disappearance and assassination of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi forced companies to reconsider their business ties. Recently, the Biden administration has been under immense pressure to push Saudi Arabia to end its blockade on Yemen, as well as ending all forms of US support for the Saudi war effort, which have exacerbated the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The law firm is also notorious for leading Chevron’s unprecedented legal battle against Steven Donziger, the human rights lawyer who won a multibillion-dollar judgement against the company and became its political prisoner as a result, trapped in house arrest awaiting trial.
“I think it has to do with how this private sector work—consulting for these clients or providing legal services to Saudi Arabia—how that is going to shape your worldview about issues pertaining to your former clients,” Alsbergas said. “How could you ever expect someone who was paid by an arm of a foreign country to then, once he’s in government, respond to the public pressure to distance ourselves from this very controversial nation?”