Few federal agencies experienced more upheaval under President Donald Trump than the Environmental Protection Agency, which saw staffers flee in droves and dozens of regulations gutted at polluters’ behest.
If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, Democrats are looking at EPA veterans and state regulators from the fire-ravaged West Coast to take the reins of a federal agency that Trump spent the past four years bending to the GOP’s political agenda.
Among the top names under discussion is Carol Browner, who is on Biden’s climate advisory council and previously served as President Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator and President Barack Obama’s climate policy director. But some progressives, including the influential Sunrise Movement climate group, are angling for agency veterans who would be new to the top job ― such as Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist who worked at the agency for 24 years before stepping down in 2017, or Heather McTeer Toney, a former southeast regional administrator under Obama who now leads the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force.
“You need people who’ve done it before, who know how the thing is baseline supposed to work, because there’s a lot of rollbacks that are going to have to be undone,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of strategy at the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. “But there are more things that are going to need to get built and significantly updated.” (NoiseCat is a former HuffPost fellow.)
Data for Progress also highlighted two potential agency chiefs from states on the climate vanguard in terms of both effects and policy response: Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board who went head-to-head with the Trump EPA over its rollback of tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, and Maia Bellon, who until recently headed Washington state’s Department of Ecology and shaped Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate agenda. Bellon would, notably, be the EPA’s first Native American administrator.
Other names circulated in Democratic policy circles are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the firebrand behind the Green New Deal movement in Congress, and Inslee, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination with a climate-focused campaign.
The Biden campaign, which recently sought to tamp down public speculation on potential nominees, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reversing An ‘Insidious’ Record
Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them.
Soon after taking office, Trump put Scott Pruitt, the climate change-denying Oklahoma attorney general who led state lawsuits against the EPA’s power plant regulations, in charge of the agency. When Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting scandals in July 2018, Trump tapped Andrew Wheeler, who had until recently served as a lobbyist for a major coal baron and funder of climate misinformation groups, to replace him.
The Trump administration, by The New York Times’ tally, has finished weakening or rescinding 72 environmental regulations as of this month, and has started the process of rolling back another 27.
Some of the administration’s highest-profile changes to rules on water pollution, tailpipe emissions and what research regulators can consider proved so controversial and scientifically dubious that the president’s own hand-picked science advisers publicly criticized the agency’s “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” and “neglect” of “established science.”
“It’s insidious,” Browner, who is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, told HuffPost. “Prior Republican administrations did some good things. They moved slowly, and they were less ambitious than we were. It was benign neglect. That’s not what’s going on here.”
To rebuild the agency, a Biden administration should set a target for 25,000 permanent staffers, a roughly 80% increase of 2019 levels that would be commensurate with the growth of the U.S. economy over the past decade, according to a proposal from Yevgeny Shrago, a visiting fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.
Adding $2.2 billion to the federal budget for hiring at the EPA could help achieve that goal.
“This is a tiny sum of the $2 trillion that the Biden administration plans to allocate to climate, and without a well-funded EPA, other initiatives will lack maximal impact as polluters continue to operate with limited oversight,” Shrago wrote in the The American Prospect last month. “Such an investment will pay dividends that even the most blinkered advocates of cost-benefit analysis have to acknowledge.”
That could be difficult to get through Congress if Republicans control either chamber. But EPA officials from past Republican administrations could be a help.
Nixon- and Reagan-era EPA chief William Ruckelshaus, who called the Trump administration’s climate contrarianism a “threat to the country” in a 2018 interview with HuffPost, died last year. But Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator during President George W. Bush’s first term, has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s tenure over the agency.
She warned that it could take years to recover from the exodus of agency talent. Selecting a nominee who can restore integrity to the agency’s research should be a top priority.
“Whoever it is is going to have to make every effort to make sure it’s not looked on as a politicized agency,” Whitman said. “You have to put someone in charge to begin with who people will trust and [who] believes in the mission of the agency.”
Browner declined to comment on potential nominations. McTeer Toney declined an interview request. Neither Santiago Ali nor Nichols responded to requests for comment.
But Bellon, who now leads a private environmental firm called Cascadia Law Group, said she was “humbled” to see her name on a list that included “incredible women leaders who’d be excellent candidates for a Biden-Harris administration.”
“If I was called upon by President Biden or Vice President Harris to consider such an appointment, I would absolutely consider it,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase and embed national environmental equity and support our disproportionately and overburdened communities.”