Brenda Mallory’s supporters say her decades of environmental law experience qualify her as the best choice to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
But she also brings a new perspective to the role as the first African American to hold the position, one shaped by her humble beginnings in Waterbury, Conn.
“That’s really important when we’re talking about environmental justice, that we have someone whose life experiences teach her about what that means,” said Jeffrey Gleason, executive director of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The center hired Mallory last year as its regulatory director, impressed by a lengthy résumé that includes representing private sector clients, working at the highest levels of the federal government and helping lead environmental law organizations.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 53-45 to confirm Mallory as the head of the CEQ, which is responsible for developing and coordinating the administration’s environmental policies.
The council implements the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which governs environmental reviews and permitting for major infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines. It will have a central role in the Biden administration’s focus on environmental justice and prioritizing the needs of minority communities affected by pollution and climate change.
“I will ensure that the voices of the poor and the powerless, from the most rural parts of America to our biggest cities, are heard as we tackle the environmental and public health crises the nation faces,” Mallory said during her confirmation hearing.
She cited the values instilled by her late parents. She told her hometown paper, the Republican-American, in 2014 that she was influenced by her father, Rev. Thomas Mallory, and his work as an investigator for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. As a young person, she worked with him during summers.
“I grew up with that interest in my environment,” she told the paper then. “I was really interested in civil rights issues and was just getting some experience about how the law and policy can impact changes in that area.”
Her life took a turn after she landed a scholarship to the private Westover School. She graduated from Yale University and then Columbia Law School before going into private practice. She helped businesses navigate the regulatory process and served as chair of the natural resources group at the environmental law firm Beveridge and Diamond.
Mallory later went to work at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ann Klee, who took over as the agency’s general counsel in 2004, recalls how Mallory stood out for the breadth and depth of her knowledge about the agency and environmental law, as well as her willingness to challenge assumptions in a constructive way.
“She became one of my top go-to people to brainstorm with, to help me think through some of the tough issues and to challenge my thinking in a way that made all of our work product better,” Klee said. “I could trust the fact that she was going to bring really good judgment and not partisan politics to the debate.”
Klee was among the former Republican officials who signed a letter in support of Mallory’s nomination. She predicted that Mallory will be a major player on the toughest issues facing the administration, including climate change, environmental justice and improving the NEPA review process without gutting it.
“There is a real need to invest in our infrastructure, and part of that means you can’t get mired in decades of litigation,” Klee said.
Mallory was the principal legal adviser for the EPA’s pesticide and toxic substances program when President Barack Obama named Scott Fulton the agency’s general counsel in 2009. One of Fulton’s first moves was to recruit Mallory to serve as his principal deputy, a position Fulton described as the office’s chief operating officer.
Fulton, now president of the Environmental Law Institute, said he gave Mallory wide latitude as the administration tackled initiatives ranging from the interpretation of water statutes to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. He said she has a deep knowledge of environmental justice, climate change and just about every other environmental issue. “I don’t know whether CEQ has ever had a chair that had as much cross-programmatic strength as Brenda does,” he said.
He also noted that she has represented business interests and understands their perspective.
“While I’m sure she feels strongly about the issues that are on the to-do list for the Biden administration, [Brenda] is not an ideologue,” he said. “She rather is interested in finding the path to the best solutions.”
Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee highlighted her past comments critical of the Trump administration’s attempts to overhaul the NEPA. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., noted that the Obama administration, in which Mallory served as general counsel of the CEQ, made no effort to modernize the regulations.
“We talked about this in our hearing with the governors, how the permitting for transportation and infrastructure projects goes on for so long, a lot of it under the NEPA regulations. ... It costs money and people abandon projects after a while,” Capito said. Those who have worked with Mallory say such concerns are off base. Gleason said she’s not going to be a “wild advocate” in her new role and cited her experience representing private sector clients.
“I’m sure there will be times when we will wish she were pushing harder, and likewise there will be times that business may feel that she’s pushing too hard,” he said. “But she’s going to take a very even-handed approach to the issues. She will definitely listen to all perspectives.”
He also pushed back on GOP suggestions that she will simply be doing the bidding of top White House climate officials such as Gina McCarthy and John Kerry.
“I can promise you that Brenda will be no one’s puppet,” Gleason said.