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EPA nominees may face challenging Senate confirmation path

EPA nominees may face challenging Senate confirmation path
© Courtesy of the California Air Resources Board

Filling the top spot at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be one of the more challenging Senate confirmation efforts facing the incoming Biden administration as the team eyes picks that have been vocal Trump administration critics.

The EPA is expected to play a vital role in a Biden administration determined to change the U.S course on climate change and sharply reduce emissions. 

Among those on the list to lead the agency are Mary Nichols, currently the head of the California Air Resources Board, National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara, former EPA regional administrator Heather McTeer Toney, and Dan Esty, a Yale University professor who previously held senior roles at the EPA during former President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

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Nichols, one of California’s top environmental regulators, has been through a confirmation battle before, securing the nomination to lead the Office of Air and Radiation under the Clinton administration.

But this process could be different, and Democrats haven’t been shy about voicing concerns over the leverage Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFeinstein to step down as top Democrat on Judiciary Committee Voters want a strong economy and leadership, Democrats should listen On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus MORE (R-Ky.) will hold over the process assuming Republicans win two Senate runoff elections in Georgia and keep the majority.

“I take McConnell at his word. I understand he said that he will make it clear who he's prepared to support and not support and that's a negotiation that I'm sure we'll have,” President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit Protect our world: How the Biden administration can save lives and economies worldwide MORE told reporters Tuesday.

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.) during a Washington Post Live interview also forecast ongoing discussion between Senate Republicans and the White House, calling cabinet picks “a shared responsibility.”

Toomey said that while the president “should get significant deference,” Senate Republicans may not be willing to support “people who are well outside of the political mainstream.” 

Nichols has earned wide praise in the environmental community and many see her as the front-runner for the position.

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“Mary Nichols is one of those most distinguished and accomplished environmental leaders in the United States,” Stan Meiburg, former acting deputy EPA administrator during the Obama administration, told The Hill.

But the so-called Queen of Green has also not kept a low profile during the Trump administration. 

California has been one of Trump’s biggest foes, suing the administration 56 times over environmental rollbacks or other similar issues, including a decision to strip the state of its ability to enact tougher vehicle emissions standards.

And Nichols has been at the center of those efforts, particularly as she has led the charge in recruiting automakers to sign deals to produce cars that reduce emissions faster than the timetable that was rolled back by Trump.

Nichols did not comment on her potential consideration, but in an interview with The Hill last year she said California “has already been branded the anti-Trump administration.”

“I know that California is looked to as the de facto representative of the United States when it comes to demonstrating that we can grow our economy, protect the health of our people and slash emissions of the gases that are poisoning the atmosphere,” she said.

Though Nichols could face more Senate resistance than some picks, one senior Obama-era political appointee familiar with the candidates on the list called her the best pick who “could handle the technical side of the job and also the political side of the job.”

Toney and O’Mara could face a more straightforward path in a Republican-led Senate.

O’Mara comes into the mix with strong Delaware ties, having served as secretary for the state’s department of natural resources. He’s led the National Wildlife Federation since 2014, a conservation group that normally deals with issues under the purview of the Department of the Interior.

But under O’Mara the group has also frequently criticized a number of Trump environmental rollbacks that have taken place under the EPA. That includes involvement in a Senate effort to use the Congressional Review Act to try and overturn EPA’s rewrite of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which ultimately died on the floor last year with a 41 to 53 vote.

Still, sources say he has good relationships with more moderate Senate members that could help advance his nomination, particularly given his organization’s work on a number of popular bipartisan conservation bills. 

“He knows the vice president personally,” the former Obama appointee said. “He’s super smart and has a good relationship with lots of moderate senators like Sen. [Joe] Manchin [D-W.Va.] and Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski [R-Alaska], so he should be an interesting pick if they are looking for someone more moderate.” 

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Toney, a former Atlanta-based regional EPA administrator, was appointed by former President Obama in 2014 after a stint as the first African American, first woman and youngest mayor of Greenville, Miss.

Since the start of the Trump administration she’s been at Mom’s Clean Air Force, which stresses the impacts pollution and climate change will have on future generations.

“We’ve just witnessed victory in a campaign that ran on — and won on — the strongest climate plan of any Presidential candidate,” Toney said in a statement to The Hill.

“Climate is one of the four top priorities of the incoming administration so now is the time to unify around the Biden climate plan, COVID recovery, and a commitment to equity. I’m confident that the Biden-Harris transition team is looking for strong individuals that can do just that.”

Betsy Southerland, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration, said Toney could be a good pick given the breadth of experience she already would have had at the agency.

“She has a strong background in air but as regional administrator she would have touched everything,” Southerland said.

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Esty, the Yale professor, did not respond to request for comment, but previously served as commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. His time at the EPA came under the George H.W. Bush administration, but he also served on the Obama campaign’s 2008 transition team.

He also recently spearheaded the Zero Carbon Action Plan, an effort to help the U.S. reach the goals of the Paris climate accord and hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How intense the Senate vetting process becomes remains to be seen.

“Are they going to try and block everyone? Perhaps. But then might have a [Mitt] Romney Manchin, Murkowski or whoever who bucks McConnell and says we have to have a functioning government,” the Obama administration appointee said.