President-Elect Joe Biden has finalized his “climate team,” tapping former Michigan governor and clean power booster Jennifer Granholm as the next Energy Secretary, North Carolina environmental chief Michael S. Regan as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M) to manage public lands as head of the U.S. Interior Dept. She is the first Native American chosen as a cabinet secretary.
All three will face U.S. Senate confirmation.
Also announced or nominated for team are Brenda Mallory as chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, Obama-era EPA chief Gina McCarthy in a reemphasized role as national climate advisor, and Ali Zaidi as deputy national climate advisor.
“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in announcing the appointments and nominations Dec. 17. “They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”
The shift in direction under Biden is likely to cause major headaches for fossil fuel projects, but will help renewable energy projects, says Megan Houdeshel, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney who advises clients on environmental and regulatory matters.
“The policies these individuals roll out could impact the status quo of projects underway and those planned for 2021. We hope the changes to the CEQ regulations for implementation of NEPA have enough bipartisan support to sustain this new suite of leadership,” Houdeshel says. “The major regulatory shifts and rollbacks seen during the Trump administration could be erased quickly. Operators who shifted practice in reliance on the Trump platform could be forced to re-engineer to meet more stringent standards and requirements. This likely hurts business more than if the company had maintained operations in line with Obama era regulations.”
Granholm’s Long Renewable Push
As Michigan governor from 2003 to 2011, Granholm pushed an energy initiative through the state legislature that set a renewable energy portfolio standard. Enacted in 2008, it requires 10% of the state's energy to come from renewable sources by 2015 and 25% by 2025. The law also included a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
But in 2012, voters rejected a ballot initiative to change the language of the state constitution to include the mandate that Michigan utilities create 25% of the state's energy from renewable sources, effectively ending that part of the renewable energy portfolio standard.
Granholm worked with Michigan providers such as DTE Energy to craft the original standard, and solar and wind generation companies have built facilities and created jobs in the state since its passage.
She also signed into law Michigan's 21st Century Jobs Fund in 2007, which used $75 million from Michigan's share of the nationwide 1998 tobacco settlement to fund businesses that would create and encourage “clean energy, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and homeland security” opportunities.
Granholm was also instrumental in Michigan State University being named as DOE's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams in 2008.
Granholm “has been a fierce advocate for clean energy for decades. She spent eight years as governor working to build a more sustainable state, and focused Michigan's economic recovery from the Great Recession on clean energy, which helped push national markets towards renewable technologies,” said current Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
With the nation's nuclear security, research and cleanup mission—a new arena for Granholm—making up 75% of DOE's budget, media have speculated that Arun Majumdar, who leads Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy and is former director of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, could be tapped as an assistant secretary to manage it.
EPA Chief-Designate ‘Track Record’
EPA adminisrator-designate Regan has been secretary of the North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality since 2017 and was an EPA air quality program manager in the Obama and Bush administrations, with “a track record of bringing people together across the public, private and non-profit sectors” related to environmental justice and climate change initiatives, said the Biden announcement.
He was key in negotiating a major coal-ash pollution settlement with Duke Energy that included moving ash to offsite landfills but also allowed onsite storage in lined facilities in what is estimated as a cleanup costing at least $4 billion. Under Regan, the state also secured a pact with chemical manufacturer Chemours to eliminate PFAS chemicals leaking into the Cape Fear River.
Regan also is credited for effective work in a politically divided state government, similar to what he will face in his new EPA role, according to observers in a Washington Post story. Jim Smith, executive director of the state chapter of the American Council of Engineering Cos., says he “has done a good, low-keyed job for the past few years” at the agency.
Previously southeast region director for the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, Regan had a focus on air quality in polluted communities that has fueled a strong push for environmental justice policies. He also was an independent energy and environment consultant before the North Carolina position and holds degrees in environmental science and public administration.
According to a Post analysis, EPA under Trump has “reversed or weakened” at least 130 environmental policies and rules, “with plans to target nearly a dozen more by mid-January.”
With the Regan nomination, Biden is “replacing a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist, just as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) did when he put [Regan] in charge of our DEQ four years ago,” said Dan Crawford, director of government relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.
Haaland To Oversee Federal Lands
Haaland, vice chair of the House natural resources committee, is an opponent of gas fracking and was an early congressional supporter of the Green New Deal.
Energy sector participants will be watching for her positions on resource use on federal lands the agency oversees.
Her public stance is unclear, however, on offshore wind development, a growing department regulatory and development segment under its Bureau of Ocean Management, which already controls leases for offshore ocean tracts.
Despite the president's opposition to offshore wind energy, the Trump-era department began advocating for it under former Secretary Ryan Zinke. It later became less supportive under his successor, David Bernhardt, a former coal sector lobbyist, who delayed a final environmental okay last year, late in the process, for the nation's first large-scale offshore wind project, the 800-MW Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts.
In a major change, the project was required to provide a more in-depth study of its impacts, and those of other projects nearby, on commercial fishing interests.
More recent Interior Dept. changes may now add another year of delay before Vineyard Wind construction can start.
In response to the climate team picks, the American Petroleum Institute said it “stands ready to work with the President-elect’s nominees once confirmed to tackle the challenge of climate change by building on America’s progress in delivering affordable and reliable energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to generational lows.” The oil and gas industry trade group said “energy ... is not a partisan issue.”
API added it “will continue to advocate for policies that promote technological innovation, advance modern energy infrastructure and support access to natural gas and oil resources—both on federal and private lands—which will be critical to rebuilding our economy and maintaining America’s status as a global energy leader.”
The lobby group also said it will “be watching closely to ensure that the incoming administration keeps President-elect Biden’s campaign promises to the energy workforce and protects the millions of jobs supported by our industry.”