President-elect Joe Biden is already setting the agenda for his administration. Last week, he announced members of his transition team, who will help him build out his staff ahead of inauguration on January 20. That includes a cast of environmental experts who will help the Biden-Harris administration select someone to serve as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
This is perhaps one of the most important positions for the incoming administration. While the Trump White House was often bumbling and incompetent, it proved quite effective in rolling back environmental protections, creating an absolute disaster that Biden's team will be tasked with cleaning up. That work will be made easier with an ally sitting at the head of the EPA, an agency that has been led by fossil fuel lobbyists in the Trump era and has seen its budget slashed and dedication to science corrupted by the commander-in-chief.
While rumors swirl about who will head up Biden's cabinet positions, there does not appear to be an early frontrunner for the EPA's top job in what could be the most crucial years in the agency's existence, with the window to address climate change rapidly closing. Mic asked environmental experts and organizations who they would like to see fill the role.
Heather McTeer Toney
Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, tells Mic that Heather McTeer Toney would be a great EPA Administrator. Toney is the senior director of the Moms Clean Air Force, an organization run by parents concerned about the effects of air pollution and climate change on the health of children. Krupp describes her as "a member of the EDF Family," adding that she is "a fierce advocate for clean air, clean water, and environmental justice."
Toney certainly has a familiarity with the EPA. She was tapped as chairwoman of the EPA's Local Government Advisory Committee in 2009, under the Obama administration, and was eventually bumped up to the role of regional administrator for the EPA's southwest region during Obama's second term. Prior to joining the EPA, she was elected Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. At just 27 years old, she was the youngest mayor in the city's history, as well as the first Black person and the first woman to hold the position. One of Toney's crowning achievements as mayor was combatting water pollution that was affecting the community.
Selecting Toney would be a major victory for environmental justice, which is one of the key qualities advocates are looking for in an EPA administrator. Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, tells Mic that Biden should look for "experienced environmental and public health leaders who are guided by science and appreciate the intersectionality of racial and economic inequities with environmental issues." Toney would certainly check those boxes.
Toney would be a qualified candidate with a relatively small public profile. For a higher profile selection, Jay Inslee might fit the bill. He has already been floated as the potential head of the Department of Energy in the Biden administration, but Greenpeace USA tells Mic that he would be an ideal fit at the EPA. "We’d love to see someone like Jay Inslee nominated to lead the EPA, or potentially a new White House Climate Council should Biden choose to create one," a spokesperson for the environmental advocacy group says.
Inslee, who is currently the governor of Washington, briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for president. His campaign revolved almost entirely around addressing climate change, and some viewed his candidacy largely as an effort to make the issue front and center during the primary campaign. Inslee eventually dropped out and offered his endorsement to Biden. It's also worth noting that Biden's proposed $2 trillion plan to address climate change cribs heavily from Inslee's own platform.
"Inslee’s 'Freedom From Fossil Fuels' plan, announced during the Democratic primary, is a laudable blueprint for holding fossil fuel executives accountable while supporting workers and communities in the transition off oil and gas," Greenpeace's spokesperson says. "Inslee brings both the ambition and record on climate we need, plus the political experience to ensure that our government will work as best as it can in service of all people."
Michael Brune, executive director at the Sierra Club, tells Mic that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris need to find an administrator who will help govern on the same environmental principles that the campaign ran on. "Harris campaigned on the strongest climate and clean energy plan ever, one that centered equity and racial justice throughout." He said that the Biden-Harris administration should be "filled with people who understand the urgency of the climate and environmental crises and will use every tool possible to address them in an equitable and just manner." Inslee, who has received Sierra Club's endorsement in his gubernatorial bid, would likely embody that description. He has been a leader on environmental policy on the state level and committed Washington to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045, making him one of the first governors to sign such a pledge into law.
Mustafa Santiago Ali
Environmental justice is expected to be one of the key components of environmental policy under the Biden administration, and perhaps no one knows the area better than Mustafa Santiago Ali. Currently serving as the vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, Ali previously spent 24 years at the EPA before quitting after Trump took office. He was one of the most senior high-ranking members of the agency, and one of the founders of the agency's Office of Environmental Justice, which suffered major cuts under the Trump administration.
During his time at the EPA, Ali also led the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJIWG), a coalition of 17 federal agencies and the White House, organized to work on addressing environmental issues that affect vulnerable communities.
Natalie Mebane, policy director at 350.org, speaks highly of Ali, noting that she personally would "love to see" him head the agency. "He obviously had a very long career at EPA." She says that he would be a great fit anywhere in the Biden administration, and noted that he may be interested in roles outside the EPA, but would still like to see him have the opportunity to lead the agency.
Another candidate Mebane raised as an ideal choice is Leslie Fields, the senior director for environmental justice and healthy communities at the Sierra Club. "She has a very, very strong environmental justice background, Mebane notes, while adding that she's taken on the role of heading up all federal policy and environmental law at Sierra Club in the last year.
Fields might bring the most experience on the law side of the spectrum. She's spent more than 20 years as a legal and policy expert at the Sierra Club and currently teaches international environmental law as an adjunct law professor at Howard University School of Law.
Fields has governmental experience, as well. She was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Board of Directors for the Mickey Leland Urban Air Toxics Research Center. She also sits on the board of the Children's Environmental Health Network and Adeso African Solutions, which helps to deliver aid and develop and manage natural resources in East African nations.
Anybody but fossil fuel lobbyists
The Trump administration truly set the bar low when it comes to the EPA, offering leadership roles at the agency tasked with protecting our environment to people with direct ties to the industries most responsible for producing greenhouse gas emissions. That means for most folks concerned about the environment, there is a clear line drawn in the sand: anyone who has connections to the fossil fuel industry is out.
"When filling the absolutely critical EPA Administrator post, Biden must only consider people that have not taken money from the polluting industries they’re supposed to regulate," Kassie Siegel, director at the Climate Law Institute, says. "People who have served fossil fuel companies and other dangerous industries should not be considered." Greenpeace echoed this sentiment, stating, "There is no room for fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, or representatives anywhere in the executive branch."
The Biden administration has already committed itself to keeping folks with ties to the fossil fuel industry on the sidelines during the transition, but Mebane believes they should bar people with ties to the industry from serving in the administration period. "Go one step further," she says. "It's good that he doesn't want that fossil influence [on the transition team]. But we also need to make sure that he doesn't want that influence in an actual high-level position." She notes that means some familiar faces from the Obama administration wouldn't be making a return. For instance, Brian Deese, a senior advisor to Obama who played a major role in negotiating the Paris Climate Agreement, wouldn't make the cut. He took a role working at investment management firm BlackRock, which has invested tons of money in fossil fuel companies. "You can't have it both ways, as far as we're concerned," Mebane says.