Meet a progressive favorite for EPA chief

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 16, 2020

When progressive advocates released their wish list for Cabinet secretaries under President-elect Joe Biden, the suggestions barely overlapped with top-tier candidates being discussed by political insiders.

One of the exceptions was Heather McTeer Toney, an Obama-era regional EPA administrator for the Southeast who now heads Moms Clean Air Force, which campaigns against air pollution.

Toney, who sources say is on the list of candidates for EPA administrator, was the Sunrise Movement’s and Justice Democrats’ third pick for the role after Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice advocate, and Kevin de León, a Los Angeles city councilman.

In an interview with E&E News, Toney sidestepped questions about the role she might play in the incoming administration.

“I am going to work on the Biden-Harris climate plan; I don’t care where I am,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I am at my kitchen table, if I am working in the administration, if I am working at Moms Clean Air Force, if I am in my church.”

She also declined to say which of the numerous environmental rollbacks established by Trump should be reversed first when Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take office in January.

“I’m pretty sure that the administration has already laid that out, what they’re going to focus on,” she said.

Biden’s EPA is expected to replace key rules for greenhouse gases and other emissions that were weakened over the last four years, though the campaign’s plans don’t offer details.

A blueprint by leading environmental policy experts last week — which included transition team members among its lead authors — identified Trump rules allowing more pollution from cars, power plants, and oil and gas operations as early targets for a Biden EPA.

The climate plan released by Biden’s campaign in July laid out several steps his administration would take to beef up protections for frontline and underprivileged communities that have often borne the brunt of health effects from pollution and climate change. They include the establishment of an “Environmental and Climate Justice Division” at the Justice Department to prosecute companies for dumping pollution in minority neighborhoods.

Toney, a former mayor of Greenville, Miss., owes her progressive endorsements in part to her environmental justice credentials. She said past administrations hadn’t fully leveraged the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to combat environmental injustice. She said that would be particularly fertile ground for the new administration.

“We haven’t had the big win there,” she said.

When it comes to taking on harmful polluters, she added: “We should look at everything. Every opportunity to correct environmental injustice. Every tool in the toolbox, both ones that we have access to and maybe even being creative about more in the future.”

Biden’s pick for EPA is likely to face a tough confirmation process if Republicans retain their Senate majority next year after two runoff elections in Georgia. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled an unwillingness to confirm nominees he views as too radical.

But progressive activists say they won’t give Biden a pass if he bows to Republican pressure and nominates a slate of moderate candidates.

Lauren Maunus, the 23-year-old legislative and advocacy manager of the Sunrise Movement, said Biden could move nominees through “fierce and creative” means like recess appointments and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

She asserted that Biden owed his hefty popular vote majority to young people who were energized by his historically progressive climate platform.

“Really, progressives delivered this victory,” Maunus said. “He needs to be taking that mandate seriously and appointing people who meet the moment of the crises that we’re facing right now. This is not a time for moderation, centrism and incremental change.”

The Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats also endorsed the idea of creating an Office of Climate Mobilization at the White House — a proposal offered by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) during the presidential primaries.

The Biden team is weighing the creation of a new policy council within the White House to coordinate climate work across the federal government.

The progressive favorites to head the new entity include former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, former White House adviser John Podesta and Inslee.