Environment, Trump Administration

Ex-DEQ chief Donald van der Vaart could lead EPA Council on Environmental Quality

Donald van der Vaart, former DEQ secretary, could lead the
EPA’s Council on Environmental Quality. (Photo: DEQ)

Donald van der Vaart, the controversial former NC DEQ secretary, is a leading candidate for a top EPA post, E&E News reported yesterday.

Van der Vaart, who long had his sights on an EPA job, has the support of conservatives who want to see him lead the agency’s Council on Environmental Quality.

CEQ wields power over several key environmental laws. It oversees  the implementation and interpretation of NEPA, the cornerstone of environmental protection. NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act — requires federal agencies to assess the environmental, social and economic impacts of certain projects. For example, a new interstate would trigger an NEPA review, as would opening public lands to energy drilling.

CEQ also develops and recommends national policies to the president that promote the improvement of environmental quality.

E&E News quoted energy lobbyist Mike McKenna as saying, “Don is a well-thought-of name by people who matter in the administration.”

In what’s likely a promising sign to some conservatives, van der Vaart appears willing to review EPA’s endangerment finding on greenhouse gases, an anthology of climate science that forms the legal justification for regulating heat-trapping emissions. He argued that the finding should be constantly updated as science progresses — E&E News

Van der Vaart has a long history of opposing tighter environmental regulations. As DEQ Secretary, his vision for the department was to be more “business- and customer-friendly,” meaning that those interests often  trumped environmental protection. In November 2016, after Donald Trump was elected president, van der Vaart sent him a letter calling for the disbandment of the EPA — a view Trump also shared. Van der Vaart subsequently made the short list of nominees to be deputy administrator to Scott Pruitt, a position that later went to Andrew Wheeler, whom Pruitt knew from their time in Oklahoma. (Pruitt was attorney general; Wheeler worked for US Sen. Jim Inhofe.)

Van der Vaart, who is skeptical of humankind’s role in climate change, had worked in the Division of Air Quality. He then served under Gov. Pat McCrory for two years. A political appointee, van der Vaart then demoted himself back to an air quality post in order to protect himself from being fired when Roy Cooper became governor.

Van der Vaart resigned from DEQ last November after current Secretary Michael Regan placed him on investigative leave. Van der Vaart had co-written an opinion piece in a national environmental law journal supporting the rollback of a key air quality rule — which conflicted with the current administration’s view — and he had accepted a position on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. After EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt essentially cleared the SAB decks of independent scientists, he filled it with industry representatives and conservative state regulators, like van der Vaart.

While he has the support of several key allies, van der Vaart has not officially been nominated. The Trump administration is still stinging from the failed nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White. The former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, she had made several controversial comments about climate change and carbon dioxide. The Trump administration withdrew her nomination earlier this month.

Now van der Vaart could achieve one of his career goals. E&E News quoted him as saying, “It would be a thrill for somebody like me who’s been in this field for a long time.”

 

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