The White House wants to rev up projects across the nation by remodeling permitting policies that still protect the environment, Brenda Mallory, the new leader of its Council on Environmental Quality, told Bloomberg Law on Wednesday.
In her first interview since being confirmed for the job, Mallory said she wants to handle permitting in a way that enables “aggressive and high-charging deployment of renewable energies and other things.” That goal meshes with President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which carves out hundreds of billions of dollars for roads, bridges, railways, airports, waterways, ports, and other types of construction.
She’s also thinking about ways to balance in-depth analyses of a project’s environmental impacts with input from concerned members of the community.
“I feel like that’s the charge,” she said. “It’s not even, ‘Can it be done?’ We’re being told to do it,” she said.
The 63-year-old is the first Black chair of CEQ, which advises the president on environmental policies and coordinates them across the federal government. She was CEQ’s general counsel during the Obama administration and previously served as a top-level counsel at the Environmental Protection, as well as director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Mallory is now leading a CEQ staff that’s reviewing the Trump administration’s 2020 rewrite of the nation’s environmental permitting laws under the National Environmental Policy Act.
At least some of the changes strike Mallory as possible targets for reversal. They include time limits of one year and limits of 75 pages for an environmental assessment along with two years and a 150-page limit for an environmental impact statement.
“I’m not convinced that those are the right mechanisms, if you really are focused on actual achieving efficiency in the process,” she said.
But Mallory said she wants to resist the temptation to speed up permits by excluding or exempting whole categories of projects. Better ideas include stacking up applications, setting up specialized units that are focused on certain kinds of projects, and using already-available government data, she said.
Several law professors and free-market proponents have observed that the Trump changes—which more narrowly define which projects require agency permit reviews—could, paradoxically, be helpful to Biden as he seeks to move on his infrastructure agenda.
CEQ is also considering a quicker route to reinstating a requirement for federal agencies to evaluate the effects that major energy and infrastructure projects will have on climate change.
Although the agency in February revoked a Trump-era climate guidance document limiting the scope of those reviews, CEQ has not yet restored the earlier, Obama-era guidance.
The council might pursue “some sort of an interim approach” that puts the 2016 guidance in place while the agency “considers whether more should be done,” Mallory said.
Mallory is scheduled to speak on a panel Friday at the the U.S. hosted climate summit addressing the importance of ensuring that “all communities and workers benefit” from climate action.
The ways in which increasing temperatures and more frequent and severe storms impact vulnerable communities—and ensuring climate action benefits them—is in the spotlight as world leaders discuss more ambitious actions this week.
She said the U.S. isn’t the only nation struggling with the equity issue, and that environmental justice is one area where the U.S. could benefit from listening to other nations.
Advocates have noted that, “in some areas, other countries are actually ahead of us,” Mallory said, and “have embraced principles about human rights in a way that the United States hasn’t done.”
The U.S. and other countries could benefit from a broader exchange, she said, on what amounts to a global environmental justice discussion—but “there’s some learning for us” along those lines as well, she said.
No New Staff
Environmental justice advocates have called for doubling or even tripling staffing at CEQ, given the elevated role Biden has put on the council for climate policy and overseeing environmental justice issues. It only has some two dozen employees, along with some added staffers detailed from other agencies.
But Mallory said she doesn’t expect help anytime soon. The council didn’t receive any significant staffing hikes under the fiscal 2021 spending measure, she said, which runs through Sept. 30, and “I haven’t heard that there’s going to be any greater appreciation” of funding for staffing in the near future, she said.
The chair said CEQ’s staff has fluctuated from nearly 100 to just a few employees over its 50-year history, but will likely look to partner with other agencies to help meet its increased workload.
Mallory’s council, along with other offices, including the White House Office of Management and Budget, are to consult with disadvantaged communities before issuing recommendations by the end of May on how agencies are to make good on Biden’s central environmental justice pledge: 40% of the benefits from clean energy and other funding is to go to communities that have borne the brunt of pollution or been left out of the clean energy revolution.
She also pledged to keep an open-door policy during her tenure.
“I have no desire at all to be locking people out of having access to share their thoughts on whatever issues they want to share their thoughts on,” Mallory said.