5 takeaways from the CEQ, EPA nominees hearing

Source: By Kevin Bogardus and Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2021

Yesterday’s hearing on President Biden’s nominees to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality and for EPA deputy administrator offered clues about what worries senators about the new administration’s plans and GOP tactics to fight back.

CEQ pick Brenda Mallory and EPA nominee Janet McCabe appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for their joint confirmation hearing.

Senators quizzed them for their thoughts on climate change, environmental justice and science as well as their prior service during the Obama administration.

The lawmakers took issue with actions to block pipeline projects, measure the cost of carbon and potential regulations on the energy sector they argue will cost jobs back home.

The nominees were conciliatory and promised to work with the committee if confirmed. They fared well under senators’ questioning and look to be on the path to being approved.

Yet confirmation for Mallory and McCabe still may be some time off. Before he adjourned the hearing, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s chairman, said senators have to submit written questions by March 10 and the nominees have to respond by March 17.

The EPW panel last month advanced its first Biden pick, Michael Regan for EPA administrator, but Senate floor votes have not been scheduled yet on his nomination.

Here are five takeaways from Mallory and McCabe’s confirmation hearing yesterday.

Culture war on climate

Instead of focusing on Mallory and McCabe’s own past remarks, Republicans often pressed the nominees on what was said by a high-profile Biden administration official: Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator now leading domestic climate policy in the White House.

Republican senators zeroed in on McCarthy saying, “We have to get the middle of the country understanding and active on climate,” and “We have to show them what resilience looks like,” at an event last month (E&E Daily, Feb. 18).

Ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) mentioned the remark in her opening statement with disapproval. Others soon followed.

“Would you both agree with this statement?” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked Mallory and McCabe about McCarthy’s comments.

McCabe, who is currently director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, said, “Folks in the Midwest are very aware of what’s going on in their environment and very eager to work across their states to come up with approaches that will allow them to be more resilient in the face of environmental challenges.”

Ernst hoped the nominees, if confirmed, would tell McCarthy that people in the Midwest are concerned about resilience.

“This was an affront. Many of us across Middle America had taken this as just another example from Ms. McCarthy as a ‘we know best’ attitude that’s pretty common amongst our coastal elite counterparts,” Ernst said.

Republicans rebrand environmental justice

Republicans yesterday, seeking to recast environmental justice, suggested Biden’s plans to halt oil and gas drilling would harm Indigenous and forgotten communities.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) held up a chart showing the life expectancy of Alaskans has increased in some areas by 13 years, a spike he said was because of ramped up oil and gas drilling.

“There are a lot of talk about environmental justice,” he said. “These are mostly Alaska Native communities, where the increase in life expectancy was huge — 10 years or more in some communities.”

Sullivan said the reason could be attributed to “significant resource development. These communities now have running water and gymnasiums and clinics — most things that Americans take for granted. This happened because resource development happened — oil and gas, mining.”

He claimed several Biden initiatives “target” Alaska and stand to reverse positive trends. The nominees did not get a chance to weigh in.

In a similar vein, Capito asserted that joblessness was also an environmental hazard. “When you have people who have depression or opioid addictions or joblessness or hopelessness, the environment surrounding those folks, those homes, those communities, I think can be just as damaging to our environment in some ways as maybe a factory or a power plant,” she said.

“There’s a great emphasis in this administration on environmental justice and equity,” Capito said. “I think [the definition] does matter because we’ll be putting a lot of resources into this, meaning federal dollars.”

Capito noted the Biden executive order that promises to put 40% of investment into communities affected by energy transitions, but she said affected states were skeptical of such vows.

Mallory repeatedly stressed the need to strike a balance between creating jobs and considering climate and environmental impacts.

The future of NEPA

Republicans pressed Mallory on National Environmental Policy Act implementation rules, which the Trump CEQ spent years rewriting in an attempt to speed up major project permitting.

The Biden CEQ — under Mallory’s leadership, should she be confirmed — is expected to do away with those changes.

In her opening statements, Capito read aloud a past Mallory quote on the Trump action: “You almost don’t have a choice but to remove the whole thing.”

She stressed that Mallory’s most recent workplace — the Southern Environmental Law Center — has challenged many energy projects.

Later in the hearing, when asked by Ernst, Mallory said some of the Trump permitting changes were not completely off the table.

She said the recent Biden order directed CEQ and the White House budget office to examine Trump’s one federal decision policy “to see whether it should be revised or reinstated.” The Trump policy sought to reduce bureaucratic hassle.

“The issue has not gone away,” she said. “The question is — is there a way to address the approach to permitting in a way that also responds to the values that we are going after.”

Relitigating the Clean Power Plan

Rather than scrutinizing potential Biden climate rules, Republicans focused yesterday’s hearing on the Obama administration’s signature initiative on the issue.

As acting head of EPA’s air office from 2013 to 2017, McCabe was one of the senior officials behind the Clean Power Plan. The rule, meant to limit power plants’ carbon emissions, came under frequent Republican attack then and again yesterday.

“You have a steeper hill to climb, frankly, than most, largely because in 2014, you sat before the same committee and promised federalism. You did again today promise federalism,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told McCabe.

“And yet the Clean Power Plan proved to be one of the most overbearing, big-government impositions on states ever, which is why 26 states successfully litigated it, including mine,” Cramer said.

McCabe defended the rule. She said the agency at the time thought the regulation was legal and worked with states on the carbon-cutting goals.

“I was absolutely sincere in my commitment to involve everybody, and I know that there are many who disagreed with the outcome of that rule,” McCabe said in response to Cramer.

“But in terms of listening to people, and hearing people, and taking everybody’s perspective into account, we certainly did that in the lengthy process that we went through on the Clean Power Plan,” she said.

Carper later entered an EPA fact sheet on the Clean Power Plan into the hearing’s record and asked McCabe to confirm how many public comments it received.

“It was 4-plus million. Yes, sir,” McCabe said.

“Did you respond to any of those?” Carper asked.

“We responded to every substantive comment, senator,” McCabe replied.

Carper said, “That’s a lot.”

The Supreme Court halted the Clean Power Plan, and the Trump administration moved to replace it. That replacement is now stuck in the courts.

Fixing EPA

McCabe’s nomination for EPA’s No. 2 spot has received letters of support from former deputy administrators, ex-agency staff and environmental groups.

They are looking to McCabe, along with Regan, to restore EPA after four tumultuous years under President Trump. The nominee yesterday faced questions over if she would improve agency operations.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked McCabe whether she was committed to ensuring there was a safe workplace for EPA employees.

Agency staff have been teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid exposure to the virus. The Biden team has said that will be EPA’s posture for the foreseeable future.

“The main reason I am so honored to be considered for this position is because my main job, as I understand it, would be to support the amazing workforce and they need a safe environment,” McCabe said.

“They need support. They need respect,” she said. “They need to be in the room and consulted because they have expertise to bring to the table, and the agency can’t make good decisions without that workforce.”

McCabe was also asked about how EPA would handle science.

“What lessons, if any, can we draw from EPA’s experience under the previous administration to improve agency safeguards that protect scientific research and the publication of scientific findings?” Carper asked McCabe as the hearing came to a close.

“Many have been concerned at some of the things that happened during the prior administration about the treatment of scientists and the use of science in agency decisionmaking processes,” said McCabe, adding the Biden administration has already made clear that science will be the foundation of policy going forward.

“I know that’s the commitment of Secretary Regan,” McCabe said. “And if confirmed, it will be mine as well.”

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.