One advantage that Brenda Mallory, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), will have on the first day she steps through the front door: She already knows the terrain.
Mallory worked at CEQ during the Obama administration as its general counsel, providing legal support to the president as he sought to enact policies that would protect public lands, lower carbon emissions, and reduce pollution. Though she’s never had a high public profile, Mallory is widely considered to be one of the country’s top experts on environmental regulatory policy, having honed her skills over many years as a lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as senior counsel for the Conservation Litigation Project, and most recently as a director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Combined, these roles have given Mallory a multifaceted expertise she'll need to tackle the pressing tasks awaiting the next head of the CEQ. Among them: skilfully using the powers of the executive branch to undo the damage wrought by four years of EPA rollbacks, ending the Trump administration’s venal sell-off of public lands to the highest corporate bidder, and bringing legal and administrative weight to the ongoing fight for environmental justice. If confirmed by the Senate, Mallory would be the first African-American to head CEQ, which was founded 50 years ago to advise presidents on how best to design and implement policies that protect people and the environment.
In addition to this advisory role, one of CEQ’s most important jobs is overseeing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the 1970 law that established and mandated the use of environmental assessments and impact statements. Under NEPA, the federal government must study the potential environmental consequences of any major development or infrastructure project to which it is connected. The government is then required to share the results of these studies with potentially affected communities.
The idea behind NEPA—that governments need to be completely transparent with their citizens about the potential risks, as well as the benefits, of major undertakings—is so sound that more than 160 nations around the world have adopted similar standards. But 50 years after the law came into effect, President Trump took action to significantly weaken NEPA, proposing and ultimately implementing changes to the law that, among other things, allow polluting industries to “review” themselves and to disregard the climate impacts of their activities. Experts have noted that these changes, which rob the public of its power to challenge projects while giving more influence to developers and polluters, have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color.
With her decades of experience in regulatory law, Mallory is in an excellent position to work with President Biden to untangle the mess that Trump has made of NEPA—and to return the White House Council on Environmental Quality to its proper role as an agency that places the interests of people and the environment above the interests of corporate polluters. And that’s a relief. Because while the agency Mallory has been nominated to lead may not be considered high profile, it’s unquestionably high impact.
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