Brenda Mallory – Chair, Council on Environmental Quality

February 3. By Michael Sales. President Biden has nominated Brenda Mallory, 63, to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. The CEQ was founded in 1969, to advise presidents on how best to design and implement policies that protect people and the environment. CEQ is a relatively small White House office (its budget is approximately $5M with a staff of approximately 30), but it has a significant impact on the president’s environmental perspective and on environmental legislation more generally.

Mallory grew up in Connecticut, the daughter of a pastor. She graduated from the Westover School, an exclusive academy for young women, earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale, and received a law degree from Columbia. She lives in Rockville, Maryland with her husband and has three adult children. If confirmed by the Senate, Mallory would be the first African American to head CEQ, which was founded 50 years ago.

Before serving as general counsel to the CEQ during the Obama administration, Mallory was a lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for many years. She was also the senior counsel for the Conservation Litigation Project. After leaving the Obama administration, she served as a director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Christy Goldfuss, Mallory’s boss at CEQ during the Obama years, describes her as being responsible for crafting the legal underpinnings of the president’s environmental agenda, determining how to proceed in the face of complexity. For example, Mallory worked on the administration’s designation of nearly two dozen national monuments, including the 2016 creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Mallory worked with five Native American tribes to whom the area is sacred, not only to determine the monument’s boundaries, but to be involved in its management. In 2017, Trump slashed the size of the monument’s territory by 85%, and finalized the reduction in order to open the land to ranchers and fossil fuel extraction in 2020.

Overseeing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the 1970 law that established and mandated the use of environmental assessments and impact statements, is one of CEQ’s most important jobs. NEPA requires the federal government to study the potential environmental consequences of any major development or infrastructure project to which it is connected, e.g., highways, pipelines and new buildings. The government is then required to share the results of these studies with potentially affected communities. The Trump administration removed many of those review requirements in order to speed up the approval of new projects. The changes were supported by industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil and gas lobby.

Allowing polluters to “review” themselves and to disregard the climate impacts of their activities was one of the key ways in which Trump weakened NEPA. This sort of cozy relationship between regulatory agencies and the industries they are supposed to oversee is a general problem. For example, the Minerals Management Service was supposed to monitor Deepwater Horizon’s drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the agency was profoundly implicated in the disaster at that facility in 2010.  

If they were to continue, Trump’s interventions would have robbed the public of its power to challenge projects, while giving more influence to developers and polluters. Not surprisingly, the weakening of NEPA has had and would have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color. In other words, Trump’s plan is systemic racism.

During the era of the 2020 presidential campaign, Mallory had a leadership role with The Climate 21 Project, which delivered recommendations to 11 White House offices, departments and federal agencies regarding Biden’s desire to enlist the breadth of the government to address climate damage. Their roadmap notes that “the Council on Environmental Quality is best suited to elevate environmental justice to the White House and to lead the agenda on climate change resilience.” The Climate 21 Project drew on the expertise of more than 150 authorities with high-level government experience on how to initiate the hot-off-the-mark, whole-of-government climate response we see in motion now.

Under the Biden administration, the CEQ could act as a brake on projects that facilitate the burning of fossil fuels, such as major pipelines, as in Keystone. In-depth environmental impact reviews enable people who live near potentially polluting infrastructure projects to have a say in whether and how they get built (e.g., the Weymouth Compressor Station!). Federal environmental reviews are one of the ways, and sometimes the only way, poor people entitled to environmental justice can exert their influence on proposed infrastructure projects.

A full discussion of CEQ’s specific activities can be found at (Everything Our Government Does).