President Biden’s Fast Start at the Interior Department

January 26, 2021 | 8:24 am
Photo: nat693/Adobe Stock
Joel Clement
Former Contributor

I never thought I’d say this, but Lady Gaga made me cry last week. Her rendition of the national anthem at the inauguration got me. Amanda Gorman’s poetry and voice got me. Remarks from both the president and the vice president lifted me. Even John Legend’s Nina Simone cover got me. It was an intense day so soon after the horrifying events at the Capitol earlier this month.

But the real action wasn’t at the Capitol, or the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The real action was in the Oval Office shortly thereafter, when President Biden started signing executive orders (EOs) and announcing new hires. As a former senior executive and whistleblower at the Interior Department, I was paying close attention to what this would mean for my former agency.

It was a good day for the agency’s mission.

First, the president signed an EO directing all agencies to root out rules and regulations from the previous administration that ran afoul of agency missions and goals—an effort that will take many months, but will course-correct the executive agencies to once again honor science and expertise, and serve the American people rather than Trump’s industry patrons.

At Interior, Biden’s executive order targeted over 30 Trump administration actions that will need to be examined, several of which are simply illegal. The unlawful shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments will likely be reversed after review, as will the measure to shrink the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

Putting a stay on the last-minute fire sale of public lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was also a notable move, as the oil and gas leases attracted little attention from bidders but violated process at every turn. In fact the State of Alaska bought most of them for pennies on the dollar, in a bizarre shell game that required the nearly bankrupt state to pony up to avoid an embarrassing non-event, while in the process insulting the Alaska Native communities whose culture depends upon the refuge.

Other shady actions by the previous administration that are likely to be scrutinized include acts to allow logging in critical habitat for the spotted owl in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest; his move to allow logging in the ancient forests of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska; multiple threatened and endangered species findings that ignored science; a new rule, noted as illegal by the courts, letting industry off the hook for killing migratory birds; reducing safety regulations for offshore oil drilling; over nine land use plans that were presided over by a BLM director who was illegally acting in that position; and an effort, modeled after a similar play at the EPA, to censor science at Interior. This is the short version of the list of illegal or inappropriate actions taken by the Trump administration to eliminate protections for lands and waters while encouraging fossil fuel development—and Biden’s team has their eye on all of them.

Speaking of the team, he also announced several new encouraging hires at Interior. In addition to the previously-announced historic nomination of Representative Deb Haaland, a Native American woman from New Mexico, for Secretary of the Interior, he selected Elizabeth Klein, an experienced hand from the Obama administration, as Deputy Secretary, and Laura Davis, another seasoned professional, to lead the Lands and Minerals hallway overseeing the Bureau of Land Management and the offshore oil and gas bureaus.

He hired top-notch people to lead the office of congressional affairs and Kate Kelly, a gifted policy expert from the Center for American Progress, as a deputy chief of staff for policy. Over at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management he hired Marissa Knodel, a whip-smart policy expert from Earthjustice, and for tribal matters he brought on two prominent tribal attorneys and experts, Bob Anderson and Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, both of whom have done time at Interior before. Other notables who are returning to Interior include Melissa Schwartz as communications director, Janea Scott as counselor to the secretary, Tanya Trujillo for Water and Science, and Shannon Estenoz for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks—all skilled and experienced hands.

There are more announcements to come—and it’s important for the science community to make sure these announcements turn into real action—but this is a super start, and the list is refreshingly female, which is a notable change from the previous administration’s transition team that included only two women. Like the rest of America, I look forward to more good news out of the Interior Department, and might have to hit replay on that national anthem a few more times.