Throughout the entirety of the Trump administration, there has yet to be a Senate-confirmed senior environmental official in the White House. That may soon change.
The president’s first choice to head the Council on Environmental Quality, former Texas environmental official Kathleen Hartnett-White, sparked controversy in part because she questioned the connection between carbon emissions and climate change. After a contentious Senate hearing last year, even some Republicans privately raised objections, and she withdrew her name from consideration.
Tuesday evening, however, President Trump shifted course and offered a far more conventional pick by nominating CEQ’s current chief of staff, Mary Neumayr, to lead it. With a reputation as a pragmatist, Neumayr appears far better positioned to win Senate approval for the post.
Republicans were quick to praise Neumayr, an attorney who has served in the Bush administration’s Energy and Justice Departments and as a counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement Wednesday that Neumayr will “make a strong leader at the Council on Environmental Quality,” given her experience at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Michael Catanzaro, who served as special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy before rejoining the D.C.-based consulting group CGCN this spring, said in an email Wednesday that “Neumayr is a consummate professional, who possesses outstanding legal skills and exceptional knowledge of environmental policy. She has been and will continue to be a tremendous asset to CEQ, the President, and the country.”
Two congressional staffers who worked with Neumayr, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because her nomination has yet to be taken up by the Senate, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she is capable of dealmaking with the other side. Still, they emphasized, she would be committed to pursuing Trump’s agenda.
The staffers described her as someone who was interested in the potential of increasing natural gas use to mitigate climate change emissions — a classic middle-of-the-road stance on the issue — and who diligently attended international meetings related to climate change negotiations, even though House Republicans often opposed the agreements those meetings were designed to support.
“The thing about Mary is that you can work with her and talk with her and have a cordial professional conversation,” said one of the staffers.
The influence of the CEQ, established in 1970 under the Nixon administration, varies depending on who occupies the Oval Office. It coordinates activities across agencies and typically exerts more impact under Democratic presidents. But it played an important role under President George W. Bush on issues ranging from ocean conservation to air quality, in part because its chair, James L. Connaughton, served for the entirety of Bush’s two terms.
Under Trump, the council’s staff has largely focused on streamlining permitting rules to spur infrastructure development. The body implements the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 law that requires the federal government’s agencies to review the environmental consequences of numerous decisions, from permitting of new projects, to oil and gas leasing, to the management of public lands.
Under the Obama administration, there was a move to greatly expand NEPA’s scope by requiring the government to factor in climate considerations of its decisions as part of the process — but Trump officials have already begun to reassess this approach.
The president has complained loudly about what he perceives as red tape and bureaucratic delays in the permitting of infrastructure projects. A White House infrastructure plan specifically calls for the Council on Environmental Quality to “issue regulations to streamline the NEPA process.”
Neumayr, if confirmed by the Senate, would be at the center of that. In her current role, she has already signed decisions to withdraw the Obama move to consider greenhouse gases as part of NEPA, and to speed permitting.