The White House on Friday will move its Council on Environmental Quality out of its main headquarters at 722 Jackson Place, a red brick townhouse it has occupied since it was established nearly half a century ago.
Although some White House CEQ staffers will remain in adjoining townhouses, the shift means the council will lose its main conference room. While the influence of CEQ waxes and wanes depending on which president is in office, it traditionally plays a key role in executing the White House’s overall environmental agenda and coordinating key decisions among different agencies.
The number of staffers also varies widely at different times, and includes employees detailed from other agencies. Shortly after being established under Richard Nixon, it had 54 staffers: its first chair, the late Russell Train, recalled in an oral history interview with Bates College that it had the same number of employees as the Council of Economic Advisers “and I was told we couldn’t have any more than they did.” At the end of former president Barack Obama’s term, the number of career staffers was about 15 out of the roughly 50-person staff, and earlier in his term the total staff reached 60 employees.
Under several administrations, including Obama’s, Clinton’s and Nixon’s, the council has steered federal decision-making in a more environmentally-friendly direction. “We really put the environmental impact process into effect and was able to bring the various agencies somewhat to heel who didn’t want to comply,” Train recalled in the 1999 Bates interview.
Christy Goldfuss, who was CEQ’s managing director under Obama and now serves as vice president for energy and environment policy at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said the decision to transfer its headquarters reflects the Trump administration’s “overall approach to CEQ in general,” where it ranks as a low priority.
Noting that “there was no discussion between the transition team and CEQ” in the months between the November election and Trump’s inauguration, Goldfuss added, “There is little regard for environmental policy. And moving the staff that’s responsible for speaking to the public about environmental policy out of their home just highlights the agenda to disregard the environment and the public interest.”
CEQ’s website was taken down after Trump took office and still remains blank.
In a presidential memorandum Trump signed last month, which was aimed at accelerating federal approval of oil and gas pipelines such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the president said CEQ should help coordinate the development of critical infrastructure projects. That Jan. 24 directive says “the Chairman of the CEQ shall coordinate with the head of the relevant agency to establish, in a manner consistent with law, expedited procedures and deadlines for completion of environmental reviews and approvals for such projects.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. At 722 Jackson Place on Thursday, workers were packing up boxes in preparation for the move.
President Trump has not yet nominated anyone to chair CEQ, and a career employee is working as acting director out of the Old Executive Office Building. The president has also yet to name nominees for other key environmental posts, including his science adviser and the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.