Special Topics in Environmental Management

The Contenders to Lead EPA, Energy, and Interior in the Biden Administration

As President-Elect Joe Biden prepares for his presidential term, he is beginning to build out his Cabinet, which includes the vice president and 15 executive department heads: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.

EPA Headquarters

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Other Cabinet-level key positions include Council of Economic Advisers chairman, director of national intelligence, EPA administrator, Office of Management and Budget director, Small Business Administration administrator, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. trade representative ambassador, and White House chief of staff.

Once the appointments are made, the Cabinet positions and some of the Cabinet-level positions will require Senate confirmation.

To date, Biden’s choices for his administration include Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkus, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellin, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Office of Management and Budget Director Neera Tandin, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who helped broker the Paris Climate Accord.

As Biden prepares to roll back many of the Trump administration’s environmental regulations and contend with multiple crises, including a pandemic and climate change, making the right Cabinet selections is critical for successfully achieving his goals.

“Biden must balance many considerations,” according to The Washington Post. “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,” continues The Washington Post. “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.”

With each cabin pick Biden has made, it is clear that previous government experience is a priority for this administration, according to CNN.

Although the Biden team is not dropping any hints, Democratic political experts believe the names below represent the best-available choices for Biden’s environmental and energy administration.

EPA

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization of the National Wildlife Federation: Ali previously worked for the EPA for 24 years and vocally resigned from his position as an EPA assistant associate administrator after Trump took office. He is also the founder of Revitalization Strategies, a business focused on moving our most vulnerable communities from “surviving to thriving.” “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,” according to The Washington Post.
  • Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, School of the Environment and Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale Law School: From 2011 to 2014, Esty served as the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, helping launch the state’s “first-in-the-nation Green Bank to promote clean energy….”
  • Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board chair: A favorite of progressive Democrats, Nichols is known for her aggressive fight against Trump’s environmental deregulation agenda, being instrumental for maintaining more stringent emissions standards in California through assisting in forging an agreement with four major automobile manufacturers and helping to put the state’s cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions program in place.
  • Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation: O’Mara led the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control as Cabinet secretary from 2009 through 2014; he was the youngest state Cabinet official when he was first appointed.
  • Richard Revesz, the Lawrence King Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at the New York University (NYU) School of Law: Known as one of the foremost legal experts in environmental and regulatory law, Revesz’s management experience includes serving as Dean of NYU’s Law School from 2002 to 2013. “He has published ten books and around 80 articles in major law reviews and journals advocating for protective and rational climate change and environmental policies, and examining the institutional contexts in which regulatory policy is made,” according to his bio on NYU Law.
  • Heather McTeer Toney, national director of Moms For Clean Air Force: Another progressive favorite, Toney is a clean air activist who is the former regional director of the EPA’s Southeast Region. Toney was also the first African American and female mayor of Greenville, Mississippi.

Other names in the running for head of the EPA include Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was just reelected to his third term; California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, Jared Blumenfeld; and former Massachusetts head of energy and environmental affairs Ian Bowles.

Energy Department

  • Arun Majumdar, Jay Precourt Provostial Chair Professor at Stanford University: Serving as the co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, Majumdar teaches mechanical engineering and is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, whose research has focused on “the science and engineering of nanoscale materials and devices, especially in the areas of energy conversion, transport and storage as well as biomolecular analysis,” according to his Stanford bio. Majumdar is also the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), which has a history of obtaining bipartisan Congressional support.
  • Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Moniz held this position when he served as President Barack Obama’s Energy secretary. He “played an important role hammering out the details of the nuclear weapons deal with Iran,” which was abandoned by Trump but is expected to be rejoined by Biden, according to The Washington Post.
  • Dan Reicher, senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for Environment at Stanford University: Reicher previously served as the assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy and as the Department of Energy’s chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. He also served as a member of Obama’s transition team. His previous experience includes serving as the director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google and as a staff member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island.
  • Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Distinguished Professor of the Practice and Senior Fellow at the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech University: Served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under Obama and as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Clinton. She was a Rhodes Scholar who previously worked with Biden when he was a senator as his Chief Foreign Affairs and Defense Policy adviser.

Interior Department

  • Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana: Environmentally active, Bullock’s career includes time as Montana’s attorney general, during which “he wrote an opinion guaranteeing access to public lands,” and as governor, during which he “signed an executive order creating a habitat for sage grouse,” according to The New York Times.
  • Deb Haaland, U.S. Representative for New Mexico: First taking office in 2019, Haaland is the least experienced in Congress. She is a Native American, enrolled in the Pueblo of Laguna. If appointed, she would be the first Native American in charge of the department that oversees federal and tribal lands.
  • Martin Heinrich, U.S. Senator for New Mexico: Currently serving as a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Heinrich is known for his strong political stances on protecting public land and promoting clean energy. “In 2015, Heinrich helped negotiate the long-term extension of renewable energy tax credits that support New Mexico’s growing clean energy industries,” according to his Senate bio.
  • Tom Udall, U.S. Senator for New Mexico: Udall announced his retirement from Congress this year but has said he would consider joining the Biden administration, according to The Washington Post. If appointed, Udall would follow in the footsteps of his father, Stewart Udall, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. “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,” according to The Washington Post.

Although Trump has not yet formally accepted defeat and vows to continue contesting the 2020 election results, the General Services Administration (GSA) said it is acknowledging Biden as the “apparent winner,” meaning Biden “now has access to top security briefings, office space and government officials as he prepares to take office on 20 January,” according to BBC News.