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Democrats go easy on Trump’s nominee for top White House environmental office

Mary Neumayr served eight years as senior energy counsel for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Tom Carper (D-DE) made MARY NEUMAYR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S NOMINEE TO HEAD THE WHITE HOUSE CEQ, FEEL AT HOME during HER SENATE CONFIRMATIOn HEARING ON JULY 19, 2018. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Tom Carper (D-DE) made MARY NEUMAYR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S NOMINEE TO HEAD THE WHITE HOUSE CEQ, FEEL AT HOME during HER SENATE CONFIRMATIOn HEARING ON JULY 19, 2018. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

It was smooth sailing on Thursday for President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next head of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

The CEQ serves an extremely important role: it is the coordinating arm for the administration’s energy and environmental policies. The office, established during the Nixon administration as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), oversees how federal agencies implement environmental impact assessments.

With a nominee who will hold tremendous influence and power in the administration seated before them, Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee gave a free pass to Mary Neumayr, who Trump nominated last month to serve as CEQ chairwoman. Neumayr has been serving as the acting head of the CEQ for more than a year.

The Senate committee is expected to vote in favor of recommending her nomination to head the CEQ. The full Senate must then confirm her to the position. No date has been set for either vote.

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was given the task of asking Neumayr about her views on climate change on July 19, the same question asked of all of Trump’s energy and environmental nominees.

“Do you believe in the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that its primary driver is human-based generation of carbon emissions?” Van Hollen asked.

“I agree that the climate is changing and that human activity has a role,” replied Neumayr, the rote answer heard from many of Trump’s nominees who have been asked the question.

Van Hollen quickly moved on to a new line of questioning, opting not to press Neumayr to define the role played by human activity.

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Kathleen Hartnett White, Trump’s previous controversial nominee to head the CEQ — who now works at the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas — did not get the same soft treatment, even though she gave similar responses to a line of questioning on climate change.

At White’s confirmation hearing last November, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), aggressively asked White about her views on climate change.

“Climate change is of course real,” White told Cardin.

“Human activity affect climate change?” Cardin asked.

“More than likely,” White answered, “but the extent to which is very uncertain.”

Due in part to her poor performance at her confirmation hearing where there was increased scrutiny on her history of fringe anti-science beliefs, the Trump White House withdrew White’s nomination to lead its Council on Environmental Quality

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Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, seemed more interested in banter with Neumayr’s nieces, who were seated in the audience, than learning about the revisions that Neumayr is likely to make in how NEPA operates.

Mary Neumayr, President Trump's nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, testifies at her Senate confirmation hearing on July 19, 2018. CREDIT: Screenshot/Senate EPW
Mary Neumayr, President Trump's nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, testifies at her Senate confirmation hearing on July 19, 2018. CREDIT: Screenshot/Senate EPW

“Are your nieces still here?” Carper asked toward the end of the hearing. “Ladies, how’s it going? Is she doing okay?”

When he returned to questioning the nominee, Carper delivered a softball: “What is CEQ doing today to help our communities become more resilient?”

“We have been working to put in place a more efficient and coordinated approach for the federal agencies going forward so that we will be able to move forward with new, modern, and resilient infrastructure and that we will be able to reach permitting decisions in a timely fashion,” Neumayr said.

The only issue on which the committee’s Democrats tried to stand their ground was the timing of the NEPA process.

In response to questions from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on federal environmental reviews of transportation projects, Neumayr said reviews can span a decade and sometimes exceed 20 years — echoing comments made by Trump.

At the end of hearing, Carper clarified that the average time to complete a highway environmental impact statement is 3.6 years, which is lower than the federal agency-wide average of 4.5 years.

The White House announced June 12 that it had picked Neumayr as its new nominee to lead a key environmental office. Since March 2017, Neumayr has served as chief of staff and the highest-ranking official within the CEQ.

In her prepared testimony, Neumayr said that under Trump’s leadership, the CEQ has “a unique opportunity to improve the government-wide implementation of NEPA, and to make government processes and decision making under this and related statutes more timely, efficient, and effective for the American people.”

Neumayr said she believes that “timely and efficient processes for environmental reviews and related permitting decisions under NEPA are critical to growing our economy, creating jobs, and achieving environmental protection.”

Before joining CEQ as chief of staff, Neumayr served as deputy chief counsel of energy and environment, senior energy counsel, and counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee off and on from 2009 until 2017.

She served as counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division from 2003 until 2006 and then as deputy general counsel for environment and nuclear programs at the Energy Department until 2009.

In April, in her current position, Neumayr oversaw the withdrawal of Obama-era CEQ guidance regarding the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in environmental policy reviews.

In 2002, Neumayr wrote a paper for the staunchly conservative Federalist Society that criticized the government for applying more regulations on “commercial” activity. She questioned the need for measures that would “harm our economic system.”

Neumayr’s views on environmental regulations conform with those of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sought to roll back environmental rules and regulations that could harm the nation’s economy and harm the bottom lines of polluting companies.

Neumayr will play a critical role in the Trump administration’s efforts to speed up reviews of infrastructure projects under NEPA. In August 2017, Trump issued an executive order aimed at cutting environmental regulations and speeding up infrastructure projects, key goals of the administration.

In February, Trump directed the CEQ to rewrite its NEPA guidance for the first time since 1978, with the goal of streamlining approvals. Last month, Neumayr’s CEQ issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking inviting input on potential changes to NEPA.

The comment period for NEPA reform is slated to be open through August 20. To date, the majority of the comments so far have either urged the council to keep NEPA intact or asked for an extended commenting period.

Environmental groups also have been less hostile to the nomination of Neumayr to lead the CEQ. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked that comments by an official with a leading environmental group be submitted into the record.

Barrasso cited an article published by E&E News last month in which John Walke, clean air director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated Neumayr “is a good selection for the administration to oversee the CEQ” and that “she will do her job well.”