Acting heads for DOE, Interior, EPA named

Source: By Timothy Cama, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 21, 2021

President Biden yesterday named a slate of officials to be acting heads of federal agencies while his nominees await Senate confirmation.

The officials are mostly senior career employees. They are meant to keep agencies running and carrying out their missions, and are unlikely to implement major policy changes before Cabinet officials take charge.

In at least some cases, Biden is picking different acting officials than the ones President Trump’s administration had lined up.

“These public servants, like so many across the federal government, are dedicated to serving the American people, not a political party or agenda. Their experience in government and commitment to service will allow this administration to take the reins as we prepare to get the pandemic under control and our economy moving once again,” Biden said in a statement yesterday evening.

“I am thankful for their willingness to step-up to lead during these difficult times and help us make sure the government continues to operate and serve the American people,” he said.

When an agency has no head, usually the next-highest, Senate-confirmed official fills in. But in the beginning of a new administration, a career employee often has to step in.

EPA

EPA’s acting administrator is Jane Nishida, a career employees and the principal deputy administrator in the agency’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, as well as the acting head of that office.

She has worked at EPA since 2011 and was twice nominated by President Obama to be the Senate-confirmed head of the international and tribal office, in 2014 and 2015, but did not get confirmed.

She has more than three decades of environmental policy experience, including as Maryland’s state environmental secretary from 1995 to 2002 under Gov. Parris Glendening (D).

Before leaving office, Trump changed EPA’s order of succession to put Charlotte Bertrand in line to be the acting administrator.

Bertrand, a longtime career EPA employee, is currently associate deputy administrator for programs, a job in the administrator’s office she was promoted into in December.

EPA employees told E&E News following Trump’s action said Bertrand was close with Trump administration political appointees at the agency (Greenwire, Jan. 11).

“Jane is a good choice, like Switzerland,” an EPA employee told E&E News. “She doesn’t run one of the main regulatory programs and deals in diplomacy.”

The employee added Nishida “is very well respected” and picking her as acting EPA administrator “makes total sense.”

Biden has nominated Michael Regan, North Carolina’s environmental secretary, to be EPA administrator.

Interior

Biden picked Scott de la Vega, a career officer in the Interior solicitor’s office and the department’s top ethics official, to be its acting secretary.

De la Vega arrived at Interior in 2018 after being the lead ethics official in the Office of the White House Counsel. His hiring was part of an effort by then-Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to visibly boost the department’s ethics operations following some high-profile controversies (E&E News PM, April 9, 2018).

He has since taken a starring role in many of the biggest ethics issues the department has seen. He told investigators with the Office of Inspector General in 2019 that he found “a little bit of the Wild West” on ethics compliance when he arrived (Greenwire, April 16, 2020).

In a separate case, he told investigators that some agency officials saw him and his colleagues as “ethics weenies” (Greenwire, May 21, 2020).

It’s unclear who, if anyone, was in line to be acting Interior secretary when Trump left office, and if anyone was acting secretary for the few hours before de la Vega’s appointment.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is Biden’s nominee to be Interior secretary.

DOE

David Huizenga is the Energy Department’s acting secretary. He is a career employee, currently serving as associate principal deputy administrator of the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Huizenga has worked at DOE since 1985. His past roles include a senior position at the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation and as acting head of the Office of Environmental Management, responsible for cleaning up the agency’s contaminated sites.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is Biden’s nominee for lead DOE.

Other agencies

Here are the new acting heads at selected other agencies:

  • Wynn Coggins at the Department of Commerce.
  • David Norquist at the Department of Defense.
  • Monty Wilkinson at the Department of Justice.
  • Lana Hurdle at the Department of Transportation.
  • Maria Pagan at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.