If Joe Biden wins the presidential election, he will have to pick an EPA administrator shrewd in science and politics as well as ready to restore the agency, observers say.
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominee has a public service career lasting decades. With more than 30 years as a U.S. senator for Delaware and eight years as vice president under President Obama, Biden has deep connections to draw upon for advice on whom to choose to lead EPA.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been the tip of the Democrats’ spear against President Trump’s EPA, grilling nominees at confirmation hearings and leading oversight of the agency.
The Delaware senator has also known Biden for close to 50 years. Carper remembered in 1974 first meeting Biden in his home when Carper was part of the late James Soles’ congressional campaign.
"He’s been my friend ever since," Carper said in an interview with E&E News.
From 2017 on, Carper and other Democrats have grimaced at each rollback by the Trump EPA, targeting major regulations like the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule. But if Biden wins the White House, they will have their chance to reverse Trump’s environmental agenda.
Tackling climate change would be at the forefront for a Biden EPA. Another issue would be environmental justice, a cause that has taken on greater prominence in the wake of anti-racism protests across the country and the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged communities of color.
On who could serve as Biden’s EPA administrator, Carper stressed the Democratic nominee should call on a skilled communicator who could explain science in "a compelling way" to the relevant committees on Capitol Hill.
"The greatest crisis we face right now on our planet is the climate crisis," Carper said. "We not only need someone who believes that that’s real, but can help explain not only why that is real but a lot of ways that we could address the climate crisis — not just to reduce that threat to our planet but also to create economic opportunity."
Noting the Black Lives Matter movement, Carper later added, "We need an administration, particularly at EPA, where we have a leadership who understands the importance of environmental justice."
In interviews, former EPA administrators and officials, current and former lawmakers, Democratic consultants, and environmental activists said whoever leads EPA in a potential Biden administration will have to know the agency inside and out. The person’s resume may include time as a regional administrator at EPA, head of a state environmental agency or even a governor.
"There are so many good people there [at EPA]. They will do well, and they will serve the country well, given the right opportunity," said Carol Browner, EPA’s longest serving administrator. "I would encourage Mr. Biden to pick someone who knows the agency and can hit the ground running. There is a lot of work."
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) — a member of the Democrats’ unity task force on climate change, set up by Biden and his top primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — said EPA under the Trump administration has dismantled dozens of environmental rules.
"Mr. Biden’s EPA administrator will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build back Americans’ trust — both inside and outside the agency — that the EPA is committed to ensuring that all people have clean air, water and land," McEachin said in a statement shared with E&E News.
The Democratic nominee has set up a transition team to help prepare for a potential Biden administration. They’re already considering who could staff the administration.
"The transition team is cultivating names who will serve in senior posts, including EPA administrator, and other top positions at the agency," a Democratic consultant who works with environmental groups told E&E News.
Several advised caution on who was being appraised to lead Biden’s EPA, given the election is still months away.
One observer said it was too soon to speculate yet added, "A lot can happen between now and November, but it’s good to plan."
Energy and environmental experts who follow EPA said several people could be considered for EPA administrator in a potential Biden administration.
Many mentioned Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, as someone who could run EPA for Biden.
Since 2007, Nichols has led CARB, California’s main air pollution regulator, where she has presided over drafting tough environmental rules, including greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger cars. She has had a long career in environmental policy, serving at EPA at one point as head of the agency’s air office during the Clinton administration.
In addition, Nichols, 75, has publicly clashed with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler over the agency’s rollback of clean car standards and revocation of California’s Clean Air Act waiver for greenhouse gases (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2019).
She has indicated she plans to remain atop CARB through 2020.
"It all seems to line up," said the Democratic consultant about Nichols being Biden’s EPA administrator if he wins. "The Trump administration’s assault on the clean car standards probably gives her some motivation too."
Other names mentioned for the EPA post include Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who ran for president in 2020 with a heavy focus on climate change; Heather McTeer Toney, the former Greenville, Miss., mayor and EPA Region 4 administrator who is now national field director for Moms Clean Air Force; former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), who pushed environmental causes in office; and Daniel Esty, the Yale University law professor who led the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Nichols, Inslee and McTeer Toney are named as potential EPA administrators for Biden in a report by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, on who should fill his Cabinet. Maia Bellon, who led the Washington State Department of Ecology, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), champion of the Green New Deal, are also mentioned as possible heads of the agency in the study.
Nichols and Gregoire were also on a 2008 list of EPA prospects to serve under Obama, included in a cache of hacked emails posted online by WikiLeaks in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election (E&E News PM, Oct. 31, 2016).
Ex-Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Biden’s former longtime chief of staff, is leading the Democratic nominee’s transition team.
"I’m talking with Ted about a number of departments," said Carper, who also considers Kaufman a close friend. "I think Ted is going to be open to input from me and from others as well, including Republicans, I’m sure."
Biden has plans for EPA. The candidate has offered an environmental justice proposal that would overhaul the agency’s civil rights office, revamp EPA’s environmental justice mapping tool to find climate change impacts and set up a climate justice division at the Justice Department that would work with EPA, among other changes.
Biden is also offering a $2 trillion plan to build out clean energy and green infrastructure.
William Reilly, who was EPA administrator during the George H.W. Bush administration, said a Biden EPA pick would need to know environmental policy.
"Better not to go with someone who doesn’t know the complexity of the agency. It is a very complex agency," Reilly said. "It will take a sophisticated person in the environmental sphere to run the agency."
Bob Sussman, former co-chair of Obama’s EPA transition team and later senior policy counsel at the agency, agreed with that assessment.
"Lack of grounding in EPA as an institution will be a liability because the agency will face a large pent-up demand for action on Day 1 and the new administrator will need to move quickly to undo the Trump agenda and chart a new course," Sussman said.
Ex-EPA officials are pushing for change at the agency that may come with a new administration. The Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA career employees and political appointees, argued in a report for a "reset" at EPA as the Trump administration has lowered public confidence in the agency.
2 names on the not-interested list
Ex-EPA administrators from past Democratic administrations have pitched in to help Biden’s campaign.
Gina McCarthy, who led EPA during Obama’s second term, is a member of the unity task force on climate change, like McEachin. The group helped draft a long list of policy recommendations for the Democrats’ party platform.
Browner, head of EPA during the Clinton administration, is part of the Biden campaign’s climate engagement advisory council, which was formed to help the campaign mobilize voters concerned about climate change.
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Biden should look to Browner’s example when choosing who to lead EPA if he wins the 2020 election.
"I think Carol Browner would be my model," said Boxer, who led the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "I will tell you why: She knew the science cold. She also knew how to communicate with senators and House members in a way that was very convincing."
But neither Browner nor McCarthy seems likely to rejoin the agency in a potential Biden administration.
"I have zero intention of returning to the government," Browner said.
McCarthy started earlier this year as president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the powerhouse environmental group. She has said she wouldn’t be interested in returning to EPA.
"It would be an honor, but it’s an honor I’m going to defer. I did my time," McCarthy told reporters in January (Greenwire, Jan. 17).
Carper said Biden would have "a rich talent pool" to choose from for EPA administrator if he won the White House, including people who have previous experience. "It could be in a Democratic administration. It could actually be in a Republican administration," he said.
The senator added, "It’s critically important that not only we have good people to nominate, but can we get them confirmed."
Reporters Timothy Cama and Maxine Joselow contributed.