Biden Put Climate at the Heart of His Campaign. Now He’s Delivered Groundbreaking Nominees

President-elect Joe Biden rounded out his climate and environment team Thursday with groundbreaking cabinet nominations at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, agencies critical to his pledge to combat climate change and emphasize environmental justice. 

Michael S. Regan, who has led a transformation of climate policy as North Carolina’s senior environmental official under Gov. Roy Cooper, was nominated to serve as EPA administrator. He would be the first Black man to run the agency that enforces such bedrock environmental laws as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, regulates power plant and tailpipe emissions and oversees cleanup of the nation’s most toxic dumps.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a 35th-generation New Mexican from the Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez, was nominated as the first Native American secretary of the interior, which would put her in charge of a department  that manages vast federal land holdings and oversees programs that serve 1.9 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Both posts require Senate confirmation.

A third key environmental official, Brenda Mallory, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, was chosen by Biden to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a key coordinating body that will oversee newly elevated councils on environmental justice. Mallory previously served as President Obama’s top lawyer on the council. 

Biden’s transition team had previously announced the nominations of other key climate and environment team members: former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for secretary of energy, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as national climate advisor and Ali Zaidi, a former Obama administration official now serving as New York’s deputy secretary of energy and environment, as deputy national climate advisor. 

Last month, Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped negotiate the 2015 Paris climate agreement, as his global climate envoy and said he will also sit on the National Security Council.

The Biden climate team faces what environmentalists describe as a Herculean rebuilding effort after four years in which the Trump administration has rolled back over 100  environmental regulations, withdrawn the nation from the Paris accord and promoted a fossil fuel agenda at about every turn.

Biden put climate change near the center of his campaign, promising a $2 trillion climate and jobs plan for dramatically reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to an economy powered by renewable energy. But his political options will be limited even if he squeaks out a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate, with two wins in crucial runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5. Democrats hold only a narrow margin in the House

With the loss of one seat in Georgia, Biden could be forced to rely heavily on federal rule-making, which requires deft leadership and executive orders, which are less durable and subject to legal challenge.

Native American Becomes Historic Choice to Lead Interior

If confirmed, Haaland will inherit an Interior Department after an aggressive push by the Trump administration to expand oil, gas and coal development on federal lands, along with the taint of a corruption scandal involving Trump’s first Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke.

Conflict-of-interest questions have also surrounded the office’s current occupant, David Bernhardt, and legal uncertainty has hung over the controversial tenure of William Perry Pendley as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. 

Haaland will face the challenge  of undoing dozens of conservative policies only recently embedded in the department’s energy, wildlife and tribal programs.

Interior’s portfolio also includes a mind-boggling—and contentious—array of duties, from managing one of every five acres in the United States and more than 400 National Park Service units, to protecting endangered species and carrying out the scientific work of the U.S. Geological Survey. Interior, with a record of suppressing the rights and taking the lands of Native Americans, also maintains programs for 574 federally recognized   tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Bureau of Education.

In Haaland, the president-elect appears to be following through with campaign promises to elevate Indigenous leaders in his administration and to tackle climate change.

The congresswoman, who made history two years ago as one of the first two Indigenous women to be elected to Congress, has experience in the fights for both climate and Indigenous causes. And advocates for the environment and for Indigenous rights applauded her nomination.

The daughter of military service members, she spent four days in 2016 at the Standing Rock Sioux camps with activists protesting the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.

“Tribes came from everywhere to stand with the water protectors,” said Haaland, calling the effort in a High Plains Reader article as “an environmental movement that was deep and meaningful,” especially among Native Americans. “It was significant that so many of us came together to protect water, our natural resources.”

Haaland, 60, won reelection last month as one of three New Mexico Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives after having served as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, chair of the national parks, forests, and public lands subcommittee and as a member of the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

While her work includes keeping climate change at the forefront of the committee’s agenda, she’s also been known to press for clean energy policies that would help maintain jobs and paychecks in a leading state for fossil fuel energy. She has been a supporter of the Green New Deal and a fracking ban, which would put her at odds with Biden.

With the Biden-Harris administration, federal climate action is back on the table,” said Zuni tribal member and New Mexico farmer Jim Enote, who’s also CEO of the Native-led Colorado Plateau Foundation and soon-to-be board chairman of the environmental advocacy group, the Grand Canyon Trust.

The American Petroleum Institute’s Mike Sommers said in a news release that the oil and gas industry is ready to work with Haaland and the Biden administration on climate change.

“In the year ahead, we will continue to advocate for policies that promote technological innovation, advance modern energy infrastructure and support access to natural gas and oil resources—both on federal and private lands—which will be critical to rebuilding our economy and maintaining America’s status as a global energy leader,” Sommers said, emphasizing that the campaign made promises to the energy work force and millions of indirect jobs.

In North Carolina, Regan Has Led on Climate Change

Regan may be especially well suited to lead the EPA, an agency that has  been downsized and demoralized under Trump, with his fossil fuel and deregulatory agenda.

Regan took over the leadership of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in 2017 under similar circumstances, following the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and his top environmental regulator, Donald R. van der Vaart, whom critics have described as a crusading idealogue.

“They were taking climate change off websites,” Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, said of van der Vaart’s leadership. “It wasn’t about science. It was about customer service and putting polluters first.”

He said that “what Regan has done is phenomenal. Our loss will be the country’s gain.”

Regan has done “extensive work in the realm of retiring coal plants and addressing the issue of coal ash and legacy pollution,” added Jennifer Rennicks, a policy director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a resident of North Carolina.

She also credited Regan with carrying out Cooper’s broad-based climate agenda that has included an in depth examination of how global warming is affecting North Carolina, and an ambitious climate action plan. Cooper’s efforts have stood out in the South.

There’s been a big focus on “addressing climate change through clean energy and electric vehicles and transportation,” Rennicks said.

Cooper’s plan calls for transforming the state’s electrical grid to save energy and make it more resilient; reducing the energy burdens of low-income residents; and cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 60 to 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, while working toward zero emissions by 2050, among other steps.

Regan Praised for His “Impressive Rise”

National groups expressed support for Regan as EPA administrator. 

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said that Biden “ran on the boldest, strongest climate policy—one that centers climate justice—in history. As he continues to build his cabinet, perhaps no pick thus far emphasizes this focus as much as Michael Regan.” 

In North Carolina, Regan’s “attention to addressing environmental justice, cleaning up coal ash, and prioritizing clean energy is exactly what the country requires as the Biden administration seeks to rebuild after the worst administration ever for our environment and the climate,” Brune said. 

A top energy lobbyist also praised Regan.

“Michael Regan has had an impressive rise, from the EPA air program to the public interest community to heading the North Carolina state agency,” said Scott Segal, a partner at the Bracewell law firm who works with energy clients. “He has brought fresh thinking along the way.

“Regan understands that tough environmental goals tempered with economic and technological reality produce the best approach on everything from climate change to more local problems,” Segal said. “We look forward to working with him in his new post.”

Dennis McLerran, the former EPA Region 10 administrator who left the agency in 2017, said Regan will have to immediately tackle matters critical to returning the agency to its role as an environmental watchdog.

“Those include addressing the regulatory rollbacks that have occurred during the Trump Administration and bringing good science forward as the fundamental underpinning of regulatory policies and decisions,” he said.

Regan will need to address climate change by restoring programs that address methane emissions and tailpipe emissions along with setting the course for the U.S. to achieve Paris-based emission levels, McLerran said.

Bill Muno, former director of the EPA’s Superfund program for the Great Lakes Region from 1995 to 2005, echoed the hope of renewed emphasis on environmental justice, especially near Superfund sites.

A recent investigation by Inside Climate News, NBC News and The Texas Observer found 945 Superfund sites nationwide vulnerable to climate-amplified hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise and wildfires. 

“To the degree that there will be a renewed emphasis on addressing sites in EJ communities, that will be a big positive for the Superfund program,” he said. “Hopefully the new administration will provide the funding to support this new emphasis.”

Environmental Justice Groups Blocked Biden’s Top Choice

Regan was reportedly Biden’s second choice for EPA.

After an uprising by environmental justice and progressive groups, Biden passed over the candidate who was long thought to be the favorite for the EPA slot, Mary Nichols, a former assistant EPA administrator and the outgoing chair of the California Air Resources Board.

Nichols has deep knowledge and hands-on experience with what is likely to be Biden’s top climate policy challenge at EPA, restoring strong fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. After Trump jettisoned the single largest step that the Obama administration had taken to address climate, Nichols brokered a deal with five automakers to keep fuel economy improvements on track—an agreement that is thought to be a likely template for a nationwide auto industry deal.

But 70 national and California environmental justice groups and other organizations sent a letter to Biden’s transition team last week blasting Nichols as having a “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism.” 

At the center of their dispute is California’s cap-and-trade program to cut carbon emissions. Minority communities who are already overburdened with pollution say it has allowed them to become sacrifice zones, as polluters take easier steps to meet their obligations, like purchasing offsets.

Veloz, a nonprofit electric car advocacy group that Nichols was instrumental in getting off the ground, had an online tribute to her tenure at CARB that seemed designed to address the environmental justice groups’ concerns; they showed a slide of Nichols in the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, and talked about her work in the 1960s registering Blacks to vote. 

But opposition to her appointment by the activist groups that had worked hard for Biden’s election proved too difficult to overcome.

The controversy shows how environmental justice and climate policy are becoming intertwined as never before, and as the Biden administration takes shape. It also shows how cap-and-trade, once thought to be the most politically viable climate solution, has fallen deeply out of favor. Biden has not talked about it as part of his plan, but activists were determined not to see a California-style cap-and-trade program emerge from Biden’s EPA.

“We’re glad to see President-elect Biden listen to frontline communities and pass over … Nichols,” said Lisa Ramsden, a Greenpeace senior climate campaigner.  “In doing so, Biden gave himself the chance to choose an EPA administrator who will prioritize justice for the communities most impacted by fossil-fueled pollution.”

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