UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Brenda Mallory as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality on April 14, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden is set to name Brenda Mallory to lead the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the White House office that coordinates environmental policy across federal agencies. Mallory has more than three decades of environmental law and policy experience, served as CEQ general counsel under President Barack Obama, and is currently director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Though somewhat dormant during Donald Trump's early tenure, CEQ ramped up its attacks on environmental policies and protections during the second half of Trump’s term.
It focused its assault on how agencies review the environmental impacts of their actions. Congress required such environmental review beginning in 1970 with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Whenever an agency funds or issues a permit for a big project like an oil pipeline, a bridge, or a highway, NEPA requires that agency to assess its environmental harms and benefits and investigate plausible alternatives to the proposal. The climate crisis has made such review especially important. A new oil pipeline, for instance, could make carbon emissions soar by making it easier to move oil and burn it. A bridge built without proper attention to sea level rise might flood, putting lives and property at risk. The CEQ, which protects the integrity of the review process, instead spent the second half of the Trump administration hollowing it out, making sure that climate concerns got deep-sixed.
Over the years, the NEPA process also became a successful way for working-class folk to push for environmental justice by calling attention to the dangers a new proposal might foist on their already burdened neighborhoods. Trump’s CEQ took a hammer to that strategy, too. If allowed to stand, its policy moves would increase pollution and environmental health burdens for many communities of color and low-wealth families across the country.
The Biden-Harris administration and Mallory must reverse course, restore and strengthen NEPA implementation guidance, and coordinate a response to climate and environmental justice challenges that is truly government-wide.
Here are four things CEQ could do right away:
- Stop and reverse the Trump administration’s NEPA overhaul. The White House and CEQ must slam the brakes on Trump’s gutting of NEPA and restore proper implementation of the law by:
- Immediately repealing Executive Order 13807, which allowed the Trump administration to gut NEPA implementation.
- Withdrawing its guidance directing agencies to hollow out their NEPA assessments and environmental impact statements.
- Restore guidance on cumulative climate impacts in all NEPA reviews. Climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different types of federal projects (direct, permitted, or funded) impact our climate in different ways. Assessing how specific projects may contribute to cumulative climate burdens (those caused by the combined effect of past, present, and foreseeable future activities) is essential to building pollution prevention, emissions reductions, resiliency, and other crucial environmental effects into all projects undertaken and authorized by the federal government.
- Restart climate adaptation planning. In addition to evaluating the cumulative climate impacts of all federal projects, the council must coordinate plans to adapt to a changing climate with all federal agencies. To achieve Biden’s “whole of government” climate goals, agencies across the executive branch must adapt land management practices, construction projects, and a wide range of energy, environmental, and other policies to the realities of climate change. The council can and should lead these efforts.
- Renew CEQ’s environmental justice focus. The Trump administration ignored environmental justice — and that’s putting it mildly. If implemented, the council’s new NEPA policies will have serious impacts on communities of color and low-wealth families, including making it more difficult to challenge increasing health and environmental burdens forced on them by polluting projects that haven’t been adequately assessed.
But Biden’s CEQ must go further than reversing Trump’s NEPA overhaul. If the president-elect is to achieve his environmental justice goals and campaign promises, the council will need to proactively coordinate efforts across federal agencies and ensure that the existing executive order on environmental justice is fully and equitably implemented.
Trump and his CEQ appointees did significant damage to the council itself and to national environmental policy writ large. The good news is that the president, vice president, and Mallory can work together not only to repair harms done but also to empower CEQ to coordinate and facilitate smart, effective environmental justice and climate policies that work for all people and the planet.
Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR’s website.
Top image by Stephanie Gross for Southern Environmental Law Center, used with permission. All rights reserved.