Climate stars surround Biden. Where does EPA fit in?

By Jean Chemnick | 12/17/2020 06:40 AM EST

President-elect Joe Biden is reorienting the chain of command on climate policy. Here’s how it could affect his White House.

Gina McCarthy and John Kerry deliver remarks on an air quality program in 2015. Both officials are climate advisers to President-elect Joe Biden.

Gina McCarthy and John Kerry deliver remarks on an air quality program in 2015. Both officials are climate advisers to President-elect Joe Biden. State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

President-elect Joe Biden has picked superstars to advance his global warming agenda.

The expected appointment this week of former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to oversee Biden’s domestic climate policy comes after he tapped former Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State John Kerry to represent his climate priorities abroad.

McCarthy, who comes fresh from leading the influential Natural Resources Defense Council, can claim a leading role in every EPA rule promulgated under President Obama to combat climate change — first as the agency’s air chief and then its leader. Kerry led the U.S. effort to land the Paris Agreement.


Advocates celebrated the picks, which they say show that Biden is taking his lofty campaign pledges on climate change seriously.

"The president-elect ran on the issue, it’s an important issue. And I think he is demonstrating his commitment by picking these two individuals," said Carol Browner, who served as the top White House climate official in Obama’s first term.

But questions remain about how two climate celebrities will share the stage with Biden’s Cabinet secretaries, who are bound to have far lower profiles — particularly on climate change.

In Kerry’s case, that would be Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, who served as Kerry’s deputy in Obama’s second term. It’s unclear now whether Kerry will report to Blinken or if he’ll answer directly to Biden. The outcome could meddle with the functioning of the State Department’s long-established climate team.

Biden hasn’t named his pick to head EPA yet, but California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, who held a senior EPA post under President Clinton and was the chief antagonist to President Trump and his deregulatory push, appears to have lost her front-runner status after environmental justice groups opposed her potential nomination.

That raises the likelihood that Biden might tap a lesser-known state regulator like 44-year-old North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan to head EPA.

Experts say McCarthy’s deep proficiency in regulatory policy will be a boon to an administration hoping to make headway on climate action without a governing majority of Democrats in the Senate.

"I see the McCarthy pick, in particular, as a recognition that the playbook is a regulatory playbook," said Jody Freeman, an Obama administration adviser who now directs the Environment and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School.

"I think there’s going to be a lot of emphasis on regulation, especially early on right out of the gate," she said. "EPA has a bunch of rules it has to put back in place, and she knows exactly what that’s like."

But Freeman and others say that far from overshadowing an EPA administrator, McCarthy would likely use her expertise to be EPA’s top advocate in the White House, smoothing the way for regulations written by agency experts. Freeman envisioned McCarthy as a kind of climate change quarterback at the White House who could overcome challenges that might complicate rulemakings or water down their results.

Browner, herself a former EPA administrator under Clinton, said she would have been "thrilled" to have a McCarthy-like advocate in the White House when she was trying to advance new air quality rules in the 1990s.

"Not everyone in the administration supported my efforts to strengthen air pollution standards," she remembered. "And I had to defend them frequently, and having an ally in the White House defending your agenda is a very different lay of the land."

In her role as climate adviser during the first Obama term, Browner said she met frequently with the so-called Green Cabinet — which included leaders of agencies like EPA, the Energy Department and the Interior Department. She said she floated regulatory ideas with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that might have been proposed by outside parties to see if they should be considered.

"Because I had a background in regulations, I was comfortable with and familiar with how regulations could be used," said Browner. "But Lisa was the person who was very focused on the specifics."

Both she and Freeman stressed that Cabinet members are ultimately responsible for the rules their agencies produce — both by statute, and because they head the agencies that employ the lawyers, scientists and other experts who will help ensure the rules are effective and legally durable.

Because comprehensive climate legislation is likely to be an uphill battle in the new Congress — even if Democrats pick up two Georgia Senate seats in a runoff election next month — EPA’s Clean Air Act rules will remain a crucial component of Biden’s climate plan. And whomever the EPA administrator is will be the one to sign them.

McCarthy and her deputy, Ali Zaidi, meanwhile, will be tasked with keeping trains running on climate policy across the federal government. That includes not just the Green Cabinet agencies, but others like the Treasury Department that will play a larger climate role under Biden.

Tim Profeta, a former Senate climate aide who co-lead the Climate 21 Project, which offered 300 pages of expert recommendations on how a future Democratic administration could maximize climate action, said the scope and scale of the climate challenge could only be managed through a whole-of-government effort coordinated by the White House.

"But it needs to be executed in partnership with the leaders in all those Cabinet positions, and I don’t know that there needs to be any sense of competition between the venues," he said.

Browner pointed to her role convening EPA and the Department of Transportation — and auto companies, environmental groups and the state of California — to hash out the first combined greenhouse gas and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles in Obama’s first term. The rulemaking transcended a single agency and thus required a coordinator.

McCarthy’s role could also have a legislative component.

While it is unlikely that a major climate bill will be on Congress’ agenda, McCarthy would be part of any administration push to negotiate a "green stimulus" package related to the pandemic.