Alejandra Nunez – Deputy Assistant Administrator – Office of Air & Radiation, EPA
Alejandra Nunez was a senior lawyer for one of the world’s largest environmental special interest groups. Now she’s charged with overseeing the Clean Air Act and advancing the Biden Climate Agenda on those very same issues.
Federal ethics regulations and the Biden ethics pledge require that she not participate in matters in which her former employer was a party.
In January 2021, Alejandra Nunez joined the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Mobile Sources in the Office of Air & Radiation (DAA). Prior to that, she had served as a senior attorney at the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, where she sued EPA on many of the same climate change, greenhouse gas, and carbon emissions issues she is now charged with overseeing. This could seriously complicate her ability to both carry out her duties and fulfill her ethics obligations
The Sierra Club is one of the world’s largest environmental special interest groups. According to its 2019 IRS Form 990, Sierra Club took in over $115 million in grants and donations, and reported more than $26 million in net revenues.
Vehicle emissions standards are one of Sierra Club’s major issues of interest at EPA. For example, in September 2019, Sierra Club sued EPA over its revocation of the state of California’s greenhouse gas emissions for new vehicle standards. On April 26, 2021, EPA unveiled a proposed rule that would reverse the 2019 decision on California’s waiver.
In another example, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General announced in July, 2020 that it was investigating the EPA’s decision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for light duty vehicles – known as CAFE standards. Sierra Club issued a press release praising the decision, and Ms. Nunez was quoted extensively, stating:
“The rollback of the clean car standards has been a complete disaster from the moment the Trump Administration stepped into office and announced its intentions to obliterate one of America’s strongest policies to fight the climate crisis. Everyone has known this was a slapdash process, and we’re glad to see the Inspector General investigating this rollback.”
On April 6, 2021, EPA Administrator Regan announced that EPA was preparing a rule to reverse the previous administration’s standards and enact more stringent CAFE requirements. This is precisely what Sierra Club and other environmental groups desired, and Ms. Nunez even spoke publicly in favor of such a policy. Now, she is serving in the office directly responsible for crafting and implementing that exact policy objective. This raises serious questions about potential conflicts facing Ms. Nunez. Both of these are issues that Ms. Nunez’ previous employer was extensively involved in, and which may also now fall under her jurisdiction at EPA. How is the Agency handling Ms. Nunez’ significant ethics limitations on these important areas within her portfolio?
Given the Biden Administration’s strong interest in promoting global action on climate change, a government-wide approach to developing international agreements should be expected. As the government’s central regulatory body in these matters, the EPA, and likely its Office of Air and Radiation, is sure to be consulted. Does Ms. Nunez intend to weigh in on vehicle emissions standards issues that her former employer may be involved in? Which particular matters will she be recused from? Has she requested and sought clear guidance from ethics officials on her ability to do so without contributing to an inherent appearance of bias?
Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency
According to the EPA’s website, the Office of Air and Radiation has a broad and important portfolio. As DAA for Mobile Sources, Ms. Nunez will primarily be responsible for administering the Clean Air Act and other standards for vehicle emissions. Given Sierra Club’s frequent involvement in those matters, these responsibilities will largely overlap with her previous job. So how will she fulfill these duties without running afoul of her ethics commitments?
Addressing climate change is a top priority for President Biden. To achieve his goals, the Administration has zeroed in on the Clean Air Act as the primary vehicle to advance many of the specific policies, including stricter emissions standards for vehicles and the advancement of electric vehicles. These are issues that fall squarely in the jurisdiction of the Office of Air and Radiation, and thus are part of Ms. Nunez’s official duties. However, they also include issues that she and her previous employer were involved in as recently as last year – including some where she has spoken on the record in favor of policy outcomes she is now charged with implementing.
Has Ms. Nunez thoroughly discussed this tension between her assigned duties, her prior employer and her ethics restrictions with the Agency’s ethics officials? Did she do so prior to joining the EPA? Has she secured guidance in writing? The American public is entitled to a government that is free from actors who are benefiting their former employers and undermining the public’s trust in the impartiality of its highest-ranking officials.