President-Elect Joe Biden Selects Top Environmental Nominees
After officially being declared President-Elect, following members of the Electoral College casting their votes for the Presidency on December 14, Joe Biden continues to make nominee selections for key environmental positions. This includes Michael Regan to be Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Brenda Mallory to head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI). All require a Senate confirmation. As the incoming Administration builds out their environmental policy cabinet, CASA sent a letter to President-Elect Biden highlighting important clean water policy initiatives that should be pursued in any future infrastructure package.
Regan’s nomination represents an upset in the selection for USEPA Administrator following weeks of assumption that Mary Nichols, who serves as the Chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), was the frontrunner for the position. However, it is not surprising that Regan received the nomination, given that he currently serves as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and previously worked for the Environmental Defense Fund on climate change and air quality issues and at USEPA under the air quality and energy programs for the Clinton and Bush administrations. If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would lead the agency responsible for setting and promulgating federal environmental regulations and policies. This includes developing and enforcing mandates under the Clean Water Act. Under a Biden Administration, it is expected that USEPA will be more aggressive on pursuing enhanced environmental protection and quality compliance standards and mandates, with a focus on environmental justice.
Mallory currently heads the Southern Environmental Law Center and previously served as General Counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as well as Acting General Counsel and the Principal Deputy General Counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. CEQ is a division within the White House that is responsible for coordinating federal environment and energy policy efforts among the various federal agencies, such as instructing agencies on how to evaluate the environmental impacts, permits, policies, and land-use decisions of major infrastructure projects. This includes overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was rewritten under the Trump Administration. If confirmed, Mallory will likely face pressure to address the NEPA rewrite, as well as lead a CEQ that is more aggressive on developing policy that addresses domestic climate change and environmental protection policies.
Haaland, who was re-elected for a second term in November, represents New Mexico’s first district in the House. Her nomination is historic, given, that if confirmed, she will be the first Native American to lead USDOI. New Mexico law allows Haaland to keep her House seat until her nomination is confirmed. This is important, given the slim majority House Democrats face next year. If Haaland is confirmed, she would have to vacate her seat and New Mexico’s Secretary of State, who is a Democrat, would need to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. As USDOI Secretary, Haaland would be responsible for following through on Biden’s promises to move the government away from fossil fuels and restoring environmental protections on public lands.
Congressional Omnibus and COVID Package
After missing the December 18 deadline to pass an omnibus bill containing Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 appropriations, COVID-19 Relief Assistance, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA), and a comprehensive energy innovation package due to last-minute policy obstacles pertaining to the COVID-19 relief package, Congress worked into the weekend to finalize an agreement in order to pass the omnibus bill before the Christmas Holiday. Late Monday night, Congress overwhelmingly passed the omnibus bill. The White House has stated the President will sign the bill into law. Over 5,000 pages, the bill delivers over $2 trillion in overall spending, with the COVID-19 relief package delivering $900 billion and FY 2021 appropriations providing $1.4 trillion.
Importantly for public water systems and treatment works, the COVID-19 package provides $638 million to States, through the Department of Health and Human Services, to issue grants to owners and operators of public water systems and treatment works serving low-income households to support drinking water and wastewater services reduce arrearages of rates charged. While it is a massive achievement that Congress was able to pass a relief package before the year’s end after months of stalled relief talks, not all of the desired relief measures made it into the final bill. The package does not include assistance for States and local governments, a top priority for Democrats, or liability protections, a top priority for Republicans, after negotiators decided to leave the two most controversial topics to be dealt with next year when Congress will again after to address COVID-19 assistance needs.
In WRDA, the clean water policy provisions that were included in the Senate’s bill (S. 3590) were cut from the final version of the bill (S. 1811). As a result, WRDA is a narrowly focused U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) bill, with additional provisions addressing and enhancing resiliency of communities. A section-by-section summary of the bill can be accessed here. However, it is expected that the dropped clean water provisions will be incorporated into an infrastructure investment package that will be developed next year under the new Administration.
Finally, appropriators reached agreement an FY 2021 spending levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is funded at $9.2 billion and appropriators rejected the Administration’s budget request reductions, streamlining, or eliminations for the Agency. Importantly, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program, which has proven to be a successful financing tool for clean water infrastructure projects, is funded at $65 million. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) Water and Related Resources is funded at $1.5 billion, of which $55 million is provided for WaterSMART Program grants and the popular Title XVI water reclamation and reuse program is funded at $63.6 million The House and Senate Committees on Appropriations’ explanatory statement on the Interior-Environment spending bill responsible for funding USEPA can be accessed here. The explanatory statement for the Energy-Water Development bill responsible for USBR appropriations can be accessed here.