By:Juliet Eilperin, Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis, Washington Post
President-elect Joe Biden chose Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) last Thursday to serve as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and head the Interior Department, a historic pick that marks a turning point for the U.S. government’s relationship with the nation’s Indigenous peoples.
With that selection and others this week, Biden sent a clear message that top officials charged with confronting the nation’s environmental problems will have a shared experience with the Americans who have disproportionately been affected by toxic air and polluted land.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted Thursday night. “ … I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
In addition to Haaland, Biden has turned to North Carolina environmental regulator Michael S. Regan to become the first Black man to head the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Obama administration veteran Brenda Mallory to serve as the first Black chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
While the picks represent a concession to progressives in Biden’s party, who publicly campaigned for an American Indian at the helm of Interior, they were also chosen to personify Biden’s plans to address the long-standing burdens low-income and minority communities have shouldered when it comes to dirty air and water. All three nominees will play a central role in realizing his promises to combat climate change, embrace green energy and address environmental racism.
“We have individuals coming to these positions who have seen what it’s like on the other side, in terms of communities that have suffered,” environmental justice pioneer Bob Bullard said in an interview Thursday. “They have been fighting for justice. Now they are in a position to make change and make policy. That, to me, has the potential to be transformative.”
Earlier this week, Biden chose former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D), a proponent of zero-emission vehicles, as his energy secretary nominee. He also established the first White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and designated former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to head it. Former Obama budget official Ali Zaidi will serve as her deputy.
“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in a statement Thursday. “They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”
If confirmed, Regan, 44, who heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, would be responsible for crafting fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, overseeing emissions from power plants and oil and gas facilities and cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites.
Regan has served as the state’s top environmental official since early 2017, when Gov. Roy Cooper (D) named him to his current role. While union leaders have criticized his approach at times, he has shown a capacity to work with community activists and the corporate world.
Regan forged a multibillion-dollar settlement over cleanups of coal waste with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board, and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature. In another high-profile case, the state ordered the chemical company Chemours to virtually eliminate a group of man-made chemicals from seeping into the Cape Fear River.
Before entering state government, Regan worked on climate change and pollution issues as southeast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “Michael knows how to make progress even when that isn’t easy — that’s a necessary skill in North Carolina,” the group’s president, Fred Krupp, said in an email.
In selecting 60-year-old Haaland, a member of Pueblo of Laguna, Biden has placed the descendant of the original people to populate North America atop a 171-year-old institution that has often had a fraught relationship with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Three divisions of Interior have a tremendous impact on Indian Country, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages billions held in trust by the U.S. government.
“It’s called plenary power,” said University of Colorado Boulder law professor Charles Wilkinson. “Native people jokingly call it, ‘plenty power.’ ”
Born in Arizona to a Native American mother who served in the Navy and a Norwegian American father who was an active-duty Marine, Haaland bounced between 13 public schools as the family changed military bases. At 15, she worked at a bakery, and later attended law school with the help of student loans and food stamps, occasionally experiencing homelessness as a single mother.
Now, after serving a single term in Congress, she will oversee a department that manages roughly one-fifth of land in the U.S. While she hails from a top oil-and gas-producing state, Haaland has pledged to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development into a promoter of renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change.