The Energy 202: Here are some of the contenders to become Biden’s top environmental officials

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, November 16, 2020

Unwinding President Trump’s rollbacks of anti-pollution rules is going to take a lot of work. And much of it is going to fall on whomever Joe Biden chooses as his main deputies on environmental issues.

Just a week after victory and without a formal concession of defeat from Trump, the president-elect is forging ahead with building a Cabinet that will have to contend with multiple crises at once — including climate change.

Biden must balance many considerations. He has promised to assemble a diverse Cabinet — one that both racially reflects the country itself and that satisfies the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party.

And crucially, many of the Democrat’s high-level choices must be approved by a sharply divided Senate. Democrats must win two runoff elections in Georgia in January to gain control of the chamber. Otherwise, Republicans will retain a thin Senate majority that may prove to be a roadblock for Biden appointments seen as too left-leaning.

Caveats abound: The transition team itself is tight-lipped about the process, and any individual could be pulled from or put into consideration at any moment. The names below emerged as possible picks in conversations my colleagues Juliet Eilperin, Steven Mufson and I have had in recent weeks with those in Democratic circles who have worked on energy and environmental issues.

Environmental Protection Agency

  • Mary Nichols: Over the past four years, the California Air Resources Board head has been central to the state’s fight with the Trump administration over environmental rollbacks. When the EPA undid tougher air pollution rules for new cars implemented under President Barack Obama, Nichols helped forge an agreement with four major automakers to maintain the more-stringent standards in California. During her 13-year tenure running the California agency, she has helped put in place the state’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Collin O’Mara: Unlike the leaders of other some environmental groups, O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation, has worked with both Democrats and Republicans to advance habitat conservation efforts in Congress. He also, crucially, has ties to Biden’s home state; O’Mara is said to have been the nation’s youngest state Cabinet official in 2009 when he ran the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. That happens to be same Cabinet in which Biden’s late son Beau served as attorney general.
  • Mustafa Santiago Ali: Also an executive at the National Wildlife Federation, Ali made headlines shortly after Trump took office for resigning from his post as an EPA assistant associate administrator. He left with more than two decades of experience at the EPA, having worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations and helped create the agency’s environmental justice office in the early 1990s. Environmentalists say picking him makes sense for an administration aiming to tackle the disproportionate impact poor and minority communities face from air and water pollution.
  • Heather McTeer Toney: Besides running the EPA’s Southeast office under Obama, she was also the first female and African-American mayor of Greenville, Miss. Now a senior director at the Moms Clean Air Force, she has spoken out against the Trump administration’s rejection of stricter air quality standards during the pandemic in which the coronavirus attacks the lungs.
  • Richard Revesz: The New York University law professor is considered one of the foremost legal minds in environmental law. Originally from Argentina, he has spent most of his career in academia. But he has managing experience, having served as dean of the NYU law school from 2002 to 2013.
  • Daniel Esty: Though now an academic with appointments at Yale’s forestry, law and business schools, Esty once served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. There he helped launch a first-in-the-nation “green bank” for promoting clean energy. Biden has proposed creating a similar institution nationwide.

Other names that may be considered for high-level EPA positions are Ian Bowles, the well-regarded former head of energy and environmental affairs in Massachusetts, and Jared Blumenfeld, California’s secretary for environmental protection. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) may also be considered for a role at the EPA or elsewhere. But taking a job in the federal government would mean he would have to leave the West Coast’s Washington — where he was just reelected to a third term.

  • Tom Udall: The senator from New Mexico is retiring from Congress his year, but has said he would consider joining the Biden administration. In recent years, Udall has been a loud advocate for conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by the end of the decade and funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The choice would also be a nostalgic one; his father, Stewart Udall, was secretary of the department from 1961 to 1969 under two Democratic presidents.
  • Deb Haaland: Of the New Mexicans being considered for the job, the congresswomen from the state’s 1st Congressional District has the least experience in Congress, being first elected in 2018. But picking her would be historic. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, would be the first Native American to run the department charged with overseeing federal and tribal lands.
  • Martin Heinrich: A member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, New Mexico’s other senator is also a proponent of clean energy and public land protections. One complicating factor for any of the state’s Cabinet hopefuls: If New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) becomes health and human services secretary, that might give Biden’s team pause about elevating another New Mexican to the Cabinet.

Other names being floated include Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Michael L. Connor, former deputy secretary at the department under Obama.

  • Arun Majumdar: A professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, Majumdar served as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The office, which is an incubator for nascent energy technologies, has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, which may bode well for his chances of being confirmed by the Senate.
  • Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: This former deputy energy secretary under Obama was once a Rhodes Scholar and is now a professor at Georgia Tech. Under Bill Clinton, she also served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
  • Dan Reicher: Now at Stanford, Reicher has had several roles at the Energy Department, including chief of staff, assistant secretary at the energy efficiency and renewable energy office, and head of Obama’s Energy Department transition team. He also once led climate and alternative energy initiatives at Google and helped raise money for Biden during the campaign.
  • Ernest Moniz: Known for his eye-catching hair, Obama’s former energy secretary played an important role hammering out the details of the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Though Trump abandoned the deal, Biden wants to rejoin it. A nuclear physicist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, he informally advised the Biden team during the campaign.

Outside of those departments, Biden may also create a new White House office focused on climate change. Among those who may become Biden’s climate “czar” are Ali Zaidi, a top climate adviser to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D); Jake Sullivan, a longtime Democratic foreign policy adviser; and Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, currently president of the Obama Foundation.

Stef Feldman, a Biden campaign policy director who helped put together the candidate’s climate plan, is also likely to advise the new administration on environmental policy. And Jason Bordoff, a former special assistant to Obama on energy and climate issues now at Columbia, is in the running for a high-level position, too.

And should he be picked to run the State or Defense Department, John F. Kerry would elevate the issue of climate change. During the Democratic primary, the former secretary of state went to bat for Biden in Iowa when his candidacy was flagging. As secretary of state under Obama, he helped broker the Paris climate accord.