Dec 18, 2020 - Energy & Environment

What to make of the last members of Biden's historic energy team

Green chairs around a world table
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The last big names of nominees for Joe Biden's energy and environment team have arrived: Rep. Deb Haaland is the pick for Interior secretary, North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan is up for EPA, and Brenda Mallory's the choice to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The big picture: They're first-of-a-kind picks. Haaland is the first Native American person tapped to run a cabinet agency, while Regan would be the first Black man to lead EPA, and Mallory would be the first Black person to head CEQ.

Catch up fast: They join other names revealed earlier this week, including former EPA head Gina McCarthy as Biden's domestic climate czar, which Axios broke down here.

Why it matters: One reason is that environmental justice — addressing the higher pollution burdens often faced by the poor and communities of color — is front-and-center.

  • It's something Haaland noted high up in her first comments about getting the nomination.
  • "We have individuals coming to these positions who have seen what it’s like on the other side, in terms of communities that have suffered," veteran EJ advocate Robert Bullard tells The Washington Post.

The intrigue: Politico's Zack Colman points out that concerns from EJ activists helped derail California regulator Mary Nichols' bid for the EPA nod. (Whether those criticisms were all fair is debatable.)

  • "It's impossible to overstate the role environmental justice activists had in [the] EPA pick," he said on Twitter.
  • More broadly, look for EJ to be a focus in the incoming administration. Again, Colman: "EJ's influence will be huge in direction of green movement & Dem politics," he notes.

The overall team unveiled this week will be tasked with trying to wield lots of executive power, especially given the likely absence of Capitol Hill pathways for major legislation.

Via a note from the research firm ClearView Energy Partners...

"We do not anticipate radical interventions, such as an invocation of a 'climate emergency' to shut down pipelines and oil exports, but we do expect tighter performance standards, higher regulatory hurdles, longer permitting timelines and fewer approvals of federal fossil energy infrastructure permits."

A few more early conclusions from a busy day and week on the incoming administration's personnel front...

1. On the policy specifics, both Haaland, an attorney, and Regan, who has a longtime policy background, will have oversight of huge parts of Biden's climate and energy agenda.

  • One big thing facing EPA, for instance, is the tricky bureaucratic process of rewriting vehicle carbon emissions rules that were weakened under President Trump.
  • For Haaland, Biden's platform calls for banning new oil and natural gas drilling permits on vast swaths of federal lands Interior oversees. But it's not clear how that will work in practice.
  • His platform also envisions greater use of those areas for renewable power development, including offshore wind.

2. The left notched several wins. Progressives had strongly campaigned for Haaland in particular for several weeks, and generally cheered the rest of the slate announced this week, too.

3. There's a lot we don't know about how the pieces will fit together.

  • For example, incoming White House domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy is likely to have lots of power. But it's not yet clear what the structure of the role will be vis a vis more formal and Senate-confirmed roles.
  • And don't forget Biden also installed John Kerry, the highest-profile name, in the new position of international climate envoy, with a seat on the National Security Council.
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