WASHINGTON, D.C.—There's a lot riding on Tristan Brown's success. As newly appointed acting administrator/deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), he oversees an agency charged with the safety of 2.8 million miles of pipelines and 1.2 million shipments of hazardous materials every day.
"Given how important the goods are that we transport, I'd venture to say that we're likely among the most unsung agencies in the federal government," he says. "Directly or indirectly, our work is integral to nearly every other industry."
Brown reports to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and is charged with developing a plan for establishing new regulations to reduce environmental impacts from pipelines and energy infrastructure. He also oversees budgets, personnel, interactions with Congress and stakeholders and communications.
A fierce advocate for the environment, Brown cultivated his passions for sustainability and public policy at Western Michigan University. Born in a small town near Lansing, Michigan, and raised outside of Detroit, he started his undergraduate career interested in business. "But I found every subject to be pretty interesting when I dove into it. Ultimately, I focused on science, math, economics and environmental issues because they provided the basic tools and understanding for further studies and developing solutions in the real world," he says.
With Western's student-planned major, in addition to an environmental studies major, Brown was able to work with advisors to craft a course of study that best fit his interests and career aspirations. As the University's first Lloyd Meeds Policy Fellow, he also got the chance to intern at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP (now K&L Gates), one of the nation's top law and lobbying firms.
As a student, Brown dove headfirst into his studies and also immersed himself in experiences—both on and off campus.
"Whether it was student organizations or spending time with professors working on interesting questions or challenges in their fields, the opportunities at WMU felt like they were endless. Studying abroad, interning in Lansing, serving on the city commission's community development committee, and showing up and participating in volunteer activities were all invaluable experiences with wonderful and passionate people," says Brown, a Lee Honors College scholar whose many extracurricular activities also included involvement in the Western Student Association, Economics Student Association, Students for a Sustainable Earth and Physics Club. He was coordinator for the Gibbs House—a living laboratory for Western students pursuing environmental research and education—and also earned a prestigious scholarship for environmental studies form the Morris K. Udall Foundation.
Bolstered by faculty who Brown says "supported and encouraged me, wrote letters of recommendation, inspired, advised and challenged me," he graduated in 2005 and went on to earn degrees from the University of California Berkeley School of Law and the University of Cambridge. He's worked for U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Gary Peters and served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Congressional Affairs in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Developing skills of resilience, of motivation, of problem solving and of understanding institutions are all things that helped me in my career and in life, and much of which I learned or cultivated throughout my time at WMU," Brown says. "Whether it was working as a busboy or working in a geochemistry lab while I was at Western, every job still informs the work I do today to some extent."
As he looks forward to the work ahead with PHMSA, Brown is excited to advance the agency's mission and also focus on a rapid and comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as climate change.
"The Biden-Harris Administration is taking a whole-of-government approach to contribute to solutions that will help mitigate climate change and improve equity for all Americans in all of the work that we're doing," he says, calling his appointment to the post an "honor of a lifetime."
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