Joe Biden has promised to make the fight against climate change a focal point of his administration. These are the frontrunners for his climate and energy Cabinet jobs.

By Robin Bravender

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make climate change a centerpiece of his administration. He's consistently described it as one of the four "major crises" facing the country along with the pandemic, the ailing economy, and calls for racial justice. 

Biden will need a savvy team that can help him negotiate the politics and policies of a thorny issue where deep partisan divisions have doomed major legislative action for decades if he wants to be the climate president.

He has already announced some climate change experts for top administration posts, like former secretary of State John Kerry, who will serve in Biden's White House as the first-ever presidential climate envoy. Brian Deese, who was then-President Obama's top climate change aide in the White House, will be Biden's lead White House economic advisor starting in January. Former Obama climate officials Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi will serve in top climate posts in the White House, according to a source close to the transition. The Washington Post first reported on their hires on Tuesday. 

The incoming administration still has key environmental and climate change jobs to fill. There's tons of jockeying going on publicly and privately to sway Biden and his team as they prepare to roll out their nominees for positions like administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and secretary of the Interior Department. 

As his team prepares to round out its roster of top climate change officials, Insider interviewed eight people close to the transition about the leading contenders. They expect the announcements to be rolled out as early as this week. 

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 18: California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols (L) and California attorney general Xavier Becerra (R) look on during a news conference at the California justice department on September 18, 2019 in Sacramento, California. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, California attorney general Xavier Becerra and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols held a news conference in response to the Trump Administration's plan to revoke California’s waiver to establish vehicle emissions standards for greenhouse gas emissions and standards to require manufacturers to sell zero emissions vehicles. Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is allowed to set its own vehicle emissions standards that are at least as protective as the federal government’s standards. The state has received 100 waivers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for higher standards than federally mandated over the past 50 years. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California air regulator Mary Nichols, pictured with Biden Cabinet appointee Xavier Becerra, is facing opposition from environmental justice groups.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency

Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, has emerged as a leading contender to lead the Biden EPA. 

The Biden team is "giving some serious consideration" to Regan, a source close to the transition told Insider this week. 

Regan was appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to lead North Carolina's DEQ in 2017. He previously served in EPA's air office during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations before working at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund and launching his own environmental consulting firm. 

Regan's name has newly surfaced among EPA insiders amid speculation that longtime California environmental regulator Mary Nichols is likely out of the mix. She was widely considered the frontrunner by Democrats close to the transition, but recent criticisms of her record from environmental justice groups — coupled with pressure for more diversity in Biden's Cabinet — appear to have hurt her chances. The New York Times reported this week that environmental justice concerns over her work as chair of the California Air Resources Board had Biden's team scrambling for a new pick. 

Biden's team will "need to get somebody who's managed a big mess," said the source close to the transition, citing the last four years of President Donald Trump's rollbacks of environmental protections and sagging morale at the EPA. 

Other names in the mix for Biden's EPA administrator include Heather McTeer Toney, who led EPA's Atlanta-based regional office during the Obama administration; Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation who led Delaware's top environmental agency from 2009 to 2014; and Richard Revesz, a New York University policy expert, sources told Insider. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - JANUARY 6: Senator Tom Udall (R-NM) reenacts his swearing in to the 114th U.S. Congress with Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Retiring New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall has long been seen as a favorite for Biden's Interior secretary.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Interior Department

Retiring New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall is widely considered the frontrunner for the Interior post under Biden. 

Udall hails from a family that's practically Interior Department royalty. The agency's Washington headquarters, dubbed the Stewart Lee Udall building, is named for the outgoing senator's father. Stewart Udall led the agency under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. 

Several sources close to the transition say they still view Udall as the frontrunner for the job, but that could be complicated depending on whether Biden's team decides to nominate women and candidates of color to other key environmental and energy Cabinet posts.

"Any time you move one piece on the board, it affects all the others," said another source close to the transition. 

There's been a groundswell of support from lawmakers and some celebrities to make New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland the first Native American to lead the Interior Department. But insiders say that's unlikely because Biden doesn't know her well. Democrats are also increasingly wary of pulling more Democrats from the House, where a narrow majority next year has already gotten slimmer as Reps. Cedric Richmond and Marcia Fudge are set to join the Biden administration. 

Two veterans of the Obama Interior Department, Michael Connor and Kevin Washburn, are also rumored as possibilities to lead the agency under Biden. 

Connor was deputy secretary at Interior under Obama and is now a partner at the law firm WilmerHale. Washburn is the dean of the University of Iowa College of Law who led Interior's Indian Affairs office under Obama. Biden picked him last month to lead the team tasked with preparing the Interior Department for the new administration. 

Either Connor or Washburn would be the first Native American to lead the department if they're picked. Connor is a descendant of the Taos Pueblo tribe and Washburn is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 28: Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm delivers remarks on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has reportedly been picked as Biden's nominee for energy secretary.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Energy Department

Politico reported on Tuesday that Biden plans to announce former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lead the Energy Department, which will play a pivotal role in his climate change agenda, citing people with knowledge of the decision. 

Another former energy official who was on Biden's short list was Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, has known Biden for decades, according to sources close to the Biden transition. She was a top foreign affairs staffer in his Senate office in the mid-1980s. 

Biden swore in Sherwood-Randall when she became deputy Energy secretary during the Obama administration. She's a foreign policy expert who also served in the Obama White House as a senior advisor on defense policy and European affairs. 

Arun Majumdar, the leader of Biden's transition operation at the Energy Department, was widely viewed as another possible contender. He's a former Obama-era DOE official who went on to be Google's vice president for energy and a professor of mechanical engineering and photon science at Stanford University. 

Ernest Moniz, who was energy secretary under Obama, was also in the mix, according to insiders. But they also think it's possible that Biden could hire Moniz for an advisory post in the White House, given his role in securing the Iran nuclear deal and the president-elect's pledge to reinstate that agreement. 

Vice President Joe Biden, second from right, has his arm around Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., right, as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, second from left, speaks at an event to highlight the importance of maintaining roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, a river tunnel project in Washington. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser listens at left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Gina McCarthy, center, worked with Biden when she led EPA during the Obama administration.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

White House climate advisor

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who was central to writing climate regulations under the Obama administration, will serve as Biden's domestic White House climate advisor. 

McCarthy started as president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council in January. She won't be the first ex-EPA boss to serve as a top White House climate official. Clinton-era EPA boss Carol Browner was climate "czar" in the Obama White House. 

Her deputy will be Ali Zaidi, who served as a top energy and environment official in the Obama White House and is now deputy secretary for energy and environment to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, according to a source close to the transition. 

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 19: Mustafa Santiago Ali, Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus appears on SiriusXM's Urban View Presents "Defining Justice In 2017" An Exclusive Subscriber Event hosted by Laura Coates at SiriusXM DC Performance Space on October 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Former EPA official Mustafa Santiago Ali is an environmental justice leader and contender for a top Biden job.
Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Council on Environmental Quality

Insiders expect that the Biden administration will use the Council on Environmental Quality, an agency within the White House that coordinates environmental policies, to elevate environmental justice issues. 

A leading contender is Cecilia Martinez, an environmental justice advocate who's leading the Biden team's transition effort at CEQ. Martinez is the co-founder and executive director at the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, an environmental advocacy group. She's a former professor at the University of Delaware who served on a climate advisory council for Biden's presidential campaign. 

Another prospect for CEQ's leader is Brenda Mallory, a former EPA attorney who was CEQ's general counsel during the Obama administration. 

Another vocal environmental justice advocate, Mustafa Santiago Ali, is also under consideration, according to sources close to the transition. Ali now serves as vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. He resigned from EPA in 2017 after more than two decades at the agency in protest of the Trump administration's policies.