Meet Biden’s Energy and Climate Cabinet Contenders

Source: By Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Friday, December 4, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden announcing his administration’s economic nominees and appointees on Tuesday.
Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s environment and energy team — facing a narrowly divided Congress and a hostile Republican leadership — will need creativity and perseverance if Mr. Biden is to follow through on his ambitious promises to address climate change.

In November, Mr. Biden announced that former Secretary of State John Kerry, who made climate change a signature diplomatic issue during the Obama administration, will become an international “climate envoy.” Mr. Biden also intends to name a high level domestic policy adviser on climate change this month.

But the agency heads, whose names will be announced in the coming days, will be the ones tasked to find a path around Congress with regulations that can cut planet-warming emissions and survive judicial review.

Here are the leading candidates:

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Mary D. Nichols

Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

Mr. Biden’s top candidate to lead the agency is Ms. Nichols, California’s climate and clean air regulator, according to four people familiar with the matter. She said in an interview that she would accept the job.

Ms. Nichols is the architect of her state’s cap-and-trade climate change law, which capped greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, then allowed utilities to buy and sell emissions credits to keep polluting at lower levels. She also helped craft California’s tough regulations on climate-warming auto emissions, which served as a model for President Barack Obama’s federal climate policies, before they were rolled back by President Trump.

“It’s going to be important to quickly reverse and stop a very large number of actions that were done by the Trump administration, and then to restore the agency’s scientific basis for its work,” Ms. Nichols said in a recent interview.

Also in the running:

Collin O’Mara

Currently president of the National Wildlife Federation, Mr. O’Mara is seen by many on the Biden transition team as a strong second choice to lead the E.P.A. if it appears that Ms. Nichols cannot win enough Republican Senate votes to be confirmed for the job.

If confirmed, Mr. O’Mara, 41, would be one of the youngest heads of a cabinet agency in recent history; he has long been described as a “whiz kid,” fluent in complex environmental policy issues.

Mr. O’Mara has deep ties to Mr. Biden’s home state of Delaware, and to the Biden family. As head of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 2009 to 2014, he worked closely with Mr. Biden’s son Beau, then the state’s attorney general. He has also served as head of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state cap-and-trade program, and served on Mr. Obama’s Task Force on Climate Adaptation and Preparedness.

Heather McTeer Toney

The former mayor of Greenville, Miss., and a regional E.P.A. administrator in the Obama administration, Ms. McTeer Toney currently serves as senior director of Mom’s Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group that fought President Trump’s efforts to scale back or eliminate air, water and climate change regulations. A top choice of liberal activists, she would be the second Black woman to lead the E.P.A.

Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality

Mustafa Santiago Ali

The White House Council on Environmental Quality coordinates and helps shape environmental policy across an administration. If confirmed, Mr. Ali would focus attention on racial disparities in federal environmental policy. With more than 20 years of experience at the E.P.A., Mr. Ali currently serves as vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. He founded the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and under the Obama administration served as a senior adviser to the administrator Gina McCarthy on environmental justice issues.

Also in the running:

Brenda Mallory

Ms. Mallory served as the general counsel to Mr. Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, after more than 15 years at the E.P.A., where she ultimately served as the agency’s principal deputy general counsel. She currently is the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit group that has fought many of Mr. Trump’s deregulatory efforts in court.

Secretary of the Interior

Michael Connor

Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press, via Alamy

Mr. Connor, a former deputy secretary of the Interior in the Obama administration, would be extremely qualified for the post. He worked in the department throughout the Clinton administration, including four years as director of the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. He later worked for then-Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, on land, water, energy and Native American issues before returning to Interior during the Obama administration.

He is also a citizen of the Taos Pueblo, a sovereign nation near Taos, N.M., that is one of the country’s 574 federally recognized Native American tribes.

A coalition of Democrats, Native Americans and liberal activists have been urging Mr. Biden to nominate a Native American to head the agency, a move that would make history. A Native American has never been in a presidential cabinet, and the Interior Department has for much of the nation’s history governed huge swaths of federal land, especially in the West, and often dislodged and abused Native Americans.

Also in the running:

Representative Deb Haaland

The campaign for a Native American Interior secretary was built around one candidate, Ms. Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico, who in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. But many of Mr. Biden’s advisers fear that she lacks the experience to manage the sprawling complex agency.

Ms. Haaland nonetheless remains a contender, in part because of her political star power.

Among those campaigning for her are the Lakota People’s Law Action Center and the actor and environmentalist Mark Ruffalo, who posted avideo on Twitter with tribal leaders speaking on her behalf. Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees the Interior Department, sent a letter to Mr. Biden signed by at least 50 colleagues urging the nomination of Ms. Haaland, who has served on Mr. Grijalva’s Natural Resources Committee since her arrival in Congress last year.

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Tom Udall

A New Mexico senator who will retire at the end of the year, Mr. Udall has fought to protect federal property from oil and gas drilling and has promoted the designation of wilderness areas in his home state. If Mr. Udall is picked, he will be keeping up a family tradition: His father, Stewart Udall, served as Interior secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Secretary of Energy

Ernest J. Moniz

Zach Gibson for The New York Times

A nuclear physicist who served as Mr. Obama’s second energy secretary remains in the running to return to his old post. Dr. Moniz, now president and chief executive officer of the Energy Futures Initiative, a research organization, served as an informal adviser to Mr. Biden during the campaign and several people who worked under him at the Energy Department said they would be thrilled to do so again.

But Dr. Moniz has detractors. Liberal groups have protested some of the positions he has taken since leaving government, including a post on the board of Southern Company, an electric and gas utility company. They also objected to his endorsements of nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage as ways to fight climate change because they believe climate policy should focus only on renewable sources like wind and solar.

Though his biggest legacy is helping to secure the Iran nuclear deal, Dr. Moniz played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Paris Agreement on climate change as well, working to make clean energy a core part of the accord. Under Mission Innovation, a parallel agreement to the Paris deal, 19 nations and the United States agreed to double research and development spending on carbon emissions-free energy. President Trump effectively backed out of the pact when he abandoned the Paris Agreement.

Also in the running:

Arun Majumdar

Dr. Majumdar, who currently is heading Mr. Biden’s transition team for the Energy Department, could become its secretary. Dr. Majumdar moved to the United States from India to earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to become the first director of Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, where he tried to build strong relationships with Republicans as well as Democrats. Currently Dr. Majumdar leads the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

One of the earliest female Rhodes scholars, Ms. Sherwood-Randall has a deep background in nuclear weapons, the largest part of the Energy Department’s work, as well as challenges to the country’s electric grid. A former adviser to Mr. Biden when he was in the Senate, Ms. Sherwood-Randall served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations working on foreign policy and national security issues. From 2014 to 2017 she was the deputy secretary of energy, leading the National Nuclear Security Administration. She also headed up an initiative to address challenges to the power grid.

White House Climate Change Coordinator

Ali A. Zaidi

Mr. Zaidi, New York State’s deputy secretary of energy and environment, is widely considered the front-runner for the role of domestic climate change coordinator. The new position would require someone who could work with cabinet secretaries and other high-level figures like Mr. Kerry. Mr. Zaidi served as associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under Mr. Obama where he helped design the White House Climate Action Plan, a blueprint for cutting emissions.

Jennifer Granholm

The former governor of Michigan and an adviser to Hillary Clinton on energy has been floated as a potential secretary of energy. But she’s also under serious consideration for the domestic climate policy coordinator position, according to two people who said her years of executive experience make her an attractive pick.