Trump taps conservative Washington insider to lead key White House environment office

The appointment comes after the previous nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White, faced criticism over her "fringe" views.

US President Donald Trump. CREDIT: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump. CREDIT: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump has nominated longtime Washington insider Mary Neumayr to lead a key environmental office within the White House. The appointment comes after a lengthy controversy concerning the previous nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White.

The White House announced Neumayr’s nomination to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on Wednesday night, following months of uncertainty. The position has been vacant since Trump took office. Since March 2017, Neumayr has served as chief of staff and the highest-ranking official within the CEQ.

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

A division of the Executive Office, the CEQ serves as a coordinating arm for energy and environmental policies. The office was established during the Nixon administration as part of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The CEQ oversees how federal agencies implement environmental impact assessments, in addition to producing an annual environmental report for the president. CEQ influence on the presidency fluctuates and the office tends to hold more sway during Democratic administrations.

Neumayr has an established track record as a conservative on environmental issues. She previously served in various positions with the House Energy and Commerce Committee dating back to 2009. During that time she was one of several authors on a Supreme Court brief arguing in favor of leaving climate change policy to the legislative and executive branches, as opposed to the courts.

Prior to that she worked with the Energy Department on environment and nuclear programs as deputy general counsel. She also served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for the House Energy and Commerce Committee between 2003 and 2006, following years of legal work with private firms. Neumayr also once penned a paper for the staunchly conservative Federalist Society arguing that environmental laws following the collapse of energy giant Enron were hurting the U.S. economy.

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Republican officials seemed pleased by Neumayr’s nomination to head the CEQ. In a statement, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, welcomed the news.

“I am pleased that the President has nominated Mary Neumayr to lead the Council on Environmental Quality,” said Inhofe. “We’ve worked well together and I appreciate her commitment to protecting the environment while also cutting duplicative and unnecessary regulations.”

He continued: “She will play a key role in working with Congress to promote good government reforms as we work towards an infrastructure bill. I congratulate her on her nomination, and look forward to her confirmation.”

Neumayr’s nomination comes after significant back and forth over CEQ leadership. In October 2017, Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White to head the CEQ, but White’s nomination fell apart amid widespread criticism over past remarks. White, who denies basic climate science and favored both increased fossil fuel production and regulatory rollbacks, was widely considered one of Trump’s most extreme nominees.

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A former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, White now serves as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). That foundation has received funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch network, among others. Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last fall, White questioned the extent to which humans contribute to global warming. White has also criticized the Endangered Species Act and argued carbon dioxide is “an essential nutrient for plant growth on which human life depends.”

Democratic lawmakers railed against White, criticizing her views and controversial stance on climate change. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) described White as “a fringe voice that rejects science, economics, and reality.” More than 300 scientists from around the United States ultimately signed a November letter slamming her nomination and arguing that the “one thing more dangerous than climate change is lying.”

Following White’s eventual withdrawal in February, the Trump administration reportedly considered North Carolina regulator Donald van der Vaart for the top CEQ position. While conservatives lobbied for his nomination, van der Vaart, who has expressed skepticism over human-driven climate change, was ultimately passed over in favor of Neumayr.