Federal Environment & Energy Line-Up for 2009 (Part 1)

December 24, 2008

KEY OBAMA ENVIRONMENTAL/SCIENCE APPOINTMENTS SO FAR

The Obama administration is taking shape quickly. Many key environmental appointments to the cabinet and elsewhere have been made. Here's a quick guide to who the new players are, and insight into their backgrounds and agendas.

The big news for the environment beat came on Dec. 15, when President-elect Barack Obama announced key energy and environment appointments.

*********************************************
EPA ADMINISTRATOR: LISA JACKSON

Most recently, Jackson headed NJ's Department of Environmental Protection. Her background is in chemical engineering.

ProPublica: "Supporters have praised her work ethic, approachability and efforts to regulate greenhouse gases in New Jersey. But Jackson's critics, including a senior scientist who quit her department in frustration, say she has been too close to industry, withheld information from the public and fallen well short of the pledge she made when taking office in February 2006 to fix the state's beleaguered toxic waste program."

Newark Star-Ledger: "While officials have praised her work, Jackson has received criticism of her handling of Kiddie Kollege, a mercury-contaminated daycare center discovered operating in Franklin Township in 2006."

People who have worked with Jackson offered mixed reactions.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility does not support Jackson's appointment. Jeff Ruch, 202-265-7337.

NOLA.com: "According to an interview last year in The Positive Community, a faith-based lifestyle magazine targeted to the African-American market in New York and New Jersey, Jackson was visiting her mother on her birthday when Hurricane Katrina hit. 'I drove my mother, her sister and my stepfather out of New Orleans to Shreveport not realizing that would be the last time my mother would see her house the way she left it.'"

"In the same interview, Jackson said, 'The Katrina experience made me realize that you can't fight; you have to accept what God has in store for you. I truly believe that God gave us this world and we have a moral obligation not to turn around and give the next generations a trash heap that they can't live off of.'"

*********************************************
ENERGY SECRETARY: STEVEN CHU

Chu is the current director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Also professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at University of California, Berkeley. Winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for physics.

Grist.org offers both praise and criticism for Chu. Joseph Romm wrote: "The DOE oversees all of the national laboratories and many of the major physics labs. Chu not only has experience running a major federal science lab, but also the lab he runs is actually responsible for developing the technologies that have paid for all the clean energy research the tax payers have ever supported."

But Grist's Tom Philpott dislikes Chu's chummy relationship with BP to develop and promote cellulosic ethanol.

The Think Progress blog Wonk Room praised Chu highly.

For some insight into Chu's views on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and climate change, watch his presentation from UC Berkeley's 2006 energy symposium. Chu is the second speaker (RealPlayer required).

Also, watch this UC Berkeley "Conversations with History" video interview with Chu about scientific inquiry and the evolution of his research interests.

Exorcising the ghost of Wen Ho Lee from DOE? James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly recently noted: "In karmic terms it doesn't hurt that Chu, who was born in St. Louis of Chinese parents, will head the very department that, under then-secretary Bill Richardson, was involved in the Wen Ho Lee imbroglio in the late 1990s. ...This is not a reason to have chosen him, but it's worth noticing."

The ethnic media review site New America Media took a different view: "To even remotely suggest that the appointment of Chu is in some way a response to the growing objection to incoming Commerce Secretary Bill Richardson — who was Secretary of Energy during the Wen Ho Lee case— is to discredit Obama's intention to recruit the best and most qualified, not to mention discounting Chu's sterling credentials."

*********************************************
INTERIOR SECRETARY: KEN SALAZAR

That Stetson hat might come in handy, since this outgoing Colorado senator has a mission to reform a troubled agency.

This Dec. 16 New York Times editorial outlines several specific types of Interior corruption Salazar will face.

TIME magazine noted that DOI reform is "a tall task, and one [Salazar] must accomplish without being dragged down by a department beset by scandal and dysfunction. 'Short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior,' Earl Devaney, the department's inspector general, testified before Congress in September 2006. While Salazar drew praise from representatives of the oil and mining industries as well as some conservationists, his appointment disappointed a cadre of environmental groups and prominent scientists, more than 100 of whom had signed a petition urging President-elect Barack Obama to tap Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva."

As recently as September 2008, Salazar called for a Senate investigation into "unethical and potentially criminal misconduct" at the federal Minerals Management Service office in Lakewood, CO.

Salazar also is a noted opponent of oil shale leases; he published an opinion piece against them in the Washington Post in July 2008.

Denver Business Journal roundup of reactions.

*********************************************
SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: TOM VILSACK

This former Iowa governor often gets pegged as a "big ag" supporter. But SEJ's Mark Neuzil writes in MinnPost.com that Vilsack's record is more complex: "For example, Vilsack consistently supported local control of hog confinement operations. In Iowa, the state regulates the siting of factory farms; cities and counties have virtually no say. This removes the NIMBY factor from factory farm placements and has allowed, critics say, big pig lots to land wherever they please. (Vilsack's attempts at local control were consistently blocked by the state legislature.)"

TIME magazine: Vilsack bio. Vilsack and ethanol.

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Fellow Fred Kirschenmann, 515-294-5588, can offer context on Vilsack.

Both environmental and industry groups are finding reasons to be critical of Vilsack over Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, biofuels, and other hot-button issues (Dec. 17, 2008, Minnesota Independent story).

Grist.org on current Vilsack criticism; 2007 Vilsack interview.

Center for Rural Affairs praise.

Politico.com points to Vilsack's potential conflict with Obama's agenda on farm subsidies.

*********************************************
ENERGY-CLIMATE CZARINA: CAROL BROWNER

The official title for this new and apparently quite powerful position is: Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change — otherwise known as "Energy Czar."

The Houston Chronicle notes the landmark shift that Browner's appointment represents: "In the Bush White House, energy policy was crafted by a former oil field services company executive — Vice President and former Halliburton Co. Chairman Dick Cheney. 'I don't think there could be a greater contrast [between Cheney and Browner], in terms of their experience or their philosophy,' said Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council."

Browner — the longest-serving EPA head, from the Clinton Administration — has most recently served as principal of The Albright Group, a high-level global strategic consulting firm headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

TIME magazine bio.

The Deputy climate change czar will be Heather Zichal: Wall Street Journal bio. Grist bio.

*********************************************
WHITE HOUSE CEQ CHAIR: NANCY SUTLEY

Under the Bush Admin, the President's Council on Environmental Quality was pushed into the background and lost most of its political weight. Under the Obama Admin, will CEQ regain prominence, or be overshadowed by the new Energy Czar Carol Browner?

Sutley most recently served as Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment. Bio.

Janet Wilson noted recently in Grist: "While Browner was at the table with Obama and his top economic advisors the day after the president-elect announced his 'green' team, Sutley was on a plane back to Los Angeles, where she is deputy mayor for energy and environment. Colleagues and friends say they don't expect that dynamic to be a problem for Sutley, a skilled, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat who prefers to keep a low profile, and who has served as deputy to many powerful officials in the past decade, including Browner when she was EPA administrator under President Clinton."

Continued: See Part 2.