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EPA preps for transition of power with unusual change to succession orders

A new line of succession established at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leaves an official who was slotted into a newly created high-ranking role just a month ago in charge on Inauguration Day.

Charlotte Bertrand, who until last month worked in EPA’s water office, will be the lead official briefing Biden administration nominees and will take over as Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland reportedly recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered | EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump | State appeals court upholds approval of Minnesota pipeline EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot standards | Interior proposes withdrawal of Trump rule that would allow drillers to pay less | EPA reverses Trump guidance it said weakened 'forever chemicals' regulations MORE steps down.

It’s not unusual for agencies to update their succession orders, especially in the waning days of the administration when a transfer of power is imminent.

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But some were surprised the handoff would go to a career employee who was so recently elevated.

A mid-December email to staff obtained by InsideEPA announced Bertrand was being promoted, the third such move for her over three years. 

“The charitable assumption was they wanted to have someone in a career position in Washington to be able to step in when the transition occurred. It was hard for them to acknowledge because Trump didn’t acknowledge he lost, but clearly someone was thinking about this at EPA,” Stan Meiberg, a former acting deputy administrator for the EPA during the Obama years, said of the agency’s December decision.

The succession order released by the White House late Friday leaves a number of officials in the line of succession above Bertrand, who is 11th on the list to take over in the event of a vacancy. 

But because every official above her is a political appointee, Bertrand will be the only one left at the agency on Jan. 20. The Trump administration has asked all political appointees to tender their resignation by Inauguration Day.

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“It’s suspicious because they made that position for her. It’s not like she’s always been in some position in the line [of succession]. They made it for her a month ago,” said Gretchen Goldman with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Meiberg said the order doesn’t concern him, mainly because it contains a provision allowing President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE to appoint his own acting administrator to lead the agency.

“I think the most important section is one that was carried over from previous orders, Section 2, which allows the president to name someone to become acting administrator and that's what’s happened in past experiences,” he said.

EPA did not respond to questions about the rationale behind the succession order.

“This is a transition document laying out acting positions come January 20th once political appointees vacate their current offices. Administrator Wheeler will remain administrator until that date. Charlotte Bertrand will then become acting administrator at noon on January 20th,” an agency spokesman said by email.

Biden plans to nominate Michael ReganMichael ReganEPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot air quality standards GM asks for flexibility in meeting emissions target EPA to revise Trump rollback to water pollution protections MORE to lead the EPA.

Regan, 44, is currently the secretary for North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state’s EPA equivalent. He previously worked for the EPA under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.