Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has named one of his former legislative aides, currently a senior adviser to a key congressional committee, as Virginia’s next secretary of natural resources, one of two Cabinet picks announced Thursday.
The selection was also one watched closely by environmental groups who want a change of tack under the new administration on some major issues such as coal ash cleanup and the planned construction of a pair of natural gas pipelines through the state.
Matt Strickler, currently a senior policy adviser to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources, will oversee six state agencies: the departments of Conservation and Recreation; Environmental Quality; Game and Inland Fisheries and Historic Resources; as well as the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
Northam also appointed Bettina Ring, the current state forester, as secretary of agriculture and forestry. She will oversee three agencies: the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Forestry and the Virginia Racing Commission.
Ring, a former senior vice president at the American Forest Foundation, also spent 14 years at the Virginia Department of Forestry.
She replaces Basil I. Gooden, former Virginia state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Strickler, a native of Lexington, will replace Molly Ward, a former mayor of Hampton.
“There’s always been this balance between our economy and protecting our natural resources,” said Northam, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and watched the crucial underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay decline, along with the populations of crabs and fish they support.
“Our economy depends on a healthy environment,” he said, though he also noted that his first priority as governor is to restore Virginia’s stature as the “No. 1 state to do business.”
Environmental issues have loomed large during outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term, including the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipeline projects that also featured prominently in the primary contest between Northam and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, and how to best clean up millions of tons of coal ash left behind in unlined ponds across the state.
Environmental groups gave Northam nearly $4 million during his campaign and some of their representatives who are serving on his transition team are pushing for his administration to change course from a regulatory regime seen as too accommodating to business, particularly the state’s dominant monopoly utility, Dominion Energy.
“He has chosen a secretary of Natural Resources who shares our values and who brings a wealth of environmental knowledge to the new administration,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, in a statement. “The threats to our environment are just as real today as they were on Election Day and we feel Matt Strickler is up to the task.”
McAuliffe’s environmental agency has faced fierce criticism for how it has handled the closure of coal ash ponds and water quality certifications for the pipeline projects. However, his administration has also won plaudits for successfully pushing through a draft carbon regulation for power plants.
A wave of speakers at meetings of the State Water Control Board this month said the DEQ had not done its job in evaluating the risk to waterways posed by pipeline construction and that the agency was rushing through a regulatory decision plagued by incomplete plan review and lacking crucial details. The board approved both certifications, though it delayed the effective date for the Dominion Energy-led Atlantic Coast Pipeline until a series of plan reviews by DEQ are complete and presented to the board.
Northam said he supports DEQ’s approach and the water board’s decision.
“What we’ll do as we move forward is to use science, to use transparency, to make sure that if it moves forward it’s done environmentally responsibly and done with landowners’ rights in mind,” Northam said. “I will stand behind the decisions that they’ve made and I will let that process play out.”