Published: December 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — The team President-elect Barack Obama introduced on Monday to carry out his energy and environmental policies faces a host of political, economic, diplomatic and scientific challenges that could impede his plans to address global warming and America’s growing dependence on dirty and uncertain sources of energy.

Acknowledging that a succession of presidents and Congresses had failed to make much progress on the issues, Mr. Obama vowed to press ahead despite the faltering economy and suggested that he would invest his political capital in trying to break logjams.

“This time must be different,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Chicago. “This will be a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time. We cannot accept complacency, nor accept any more broken promises.”

Shortly after Mr. Obama spoke, transition officials confirmed that he would select Senator Ken Salazar, a first-term Democrat from Colorado, as interior secretary. Mr. Salazar’s appointment will complete the team of environmental and energy officials in the new administration.

The most pressing environmental issue for the incoming team will almost certainly be settling on an effective and politically tenable approach to the intertwined issues of energy security and global warming.

The point person for these issues will be Carol M. Browner, who was named on Monday to the new position of White House coordinator for energy and climate. Ms. Browner, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, will oversee two former aides, Lisa P. Jackson, who was selected as the new agency administrator, and Nancy Sutley, who will be the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Joining the group will be Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics whom Mr. Obama designated to lead the Energy Department.

Mr. Salazar, a former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and state attorney general, is a farmer and rancher whose family has lived in Colorado for five generations. He is known as a staunch conservationist and an opponent of developing oil shale on public lands.

His appointment will leave a Democratic vacancy in the Senate. Colorado, which voted for Mr. Obama 53 percent to 45 percent, has a Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, who will name a replacement to complete the final two years of Mr. Salazar’s term. Mr. Salazar’s brother John, a congressman, is among potential appointees to fill the Senate seat.

The intense ideological and regional rivalries that have stalled climate change legislation in Congress for years have not suddenly melted away. And even though Mr. Obama promises to give energy legislation a high priority, he first must stabilize an economy that is shedding jobs by the hundreds of thousands each month.

The new team faces political urgency to deliver on promises made by Mr. Obama on the campaign trail. One was his pledge to use a cap-and-trade bill for curbing heat-trapping gases as both the means of shifting investments away from energy sources that cause emissions of such gases and also as the source of the $15 billion a year he promised to invest in advanced energy technology. That figure may be dwarfed by spending on stimulus programs, including so-called green projects like building wind farms and making buildings more energy efficient.

Previous efforts to move a comprehensive climate bill through Congress stalled even without the deepening recession the nation confronts today, said Rafe Pomerance, a negotiator in the Clinton administration on international climate agreements and the president of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a Washington nonprofit group.

Mr. Pomerance said the challenge would be to devise a scientifically rigorous bill that would satisfy lawmakers who fear the costs.

Left unclear on Monday was how the new president’s advisers intend to use the levers of government to get to the “new energy economy” Mr. Obama described. Also uncertain was what relationship they would forge with his powerful economic advisers.

“In policy terms, I think there are big questions about what priority will be given to direct public infrastructure spending versus tax-based incentives versus environmental markets versus direct regulation,” said Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan advisory group. “There is still a very profound debate on all of that.”

The diplomatic tension is driven by the steps required to work toward a new global climate treaty, which the United States and nearly all other nations have committed to completing by December 2009. The last round of talks ended last weekend in Poland with few signs of progress on the main goal, limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases without hampering economic development.

It is widely felt that if the United States does not demonstrate concrete domestic steps to curb its emissions from burning fossil fuels, fast-growing developing countries will continue to balk at taking on obligations to cut their emissions. And while Mr. Obama will enjoy a larger Democratic majority than Mr. Clinton did in his two terms, the Senate has long made such steps a prerequisite for its required consent to any climate treaty.

The scientific urgency comes from the unanticipated recent growth in emissions of carbon dioxide in China, India and other countries with fast-expanding economies. This heat-trapping gas is the biggest concern because its long life, once the gas is released, causes it to build in the atmosphere, something like unpaid credit-card debt, as long as reductions are not made.

Additional pressure comes from growing recognition that market forces alone are unlikely to drive the spread of nonpolluting energy technologies fast enough to matter where all the growth in energy use is at its peak, in the rapidly growing countries of Asia and Latin America.

Nathan Lewis, who leads a team at Caltech pursuing ways to greatly improve solar energy technologies, said the appointment of Dr. Chu as energy secretary sent a strong signal that Mr. Obama understood that any program on climate-friendly energy had to have three prongs: increasing efficiency, moving existing nonpolluting energy technologies more quickly into the market, and advancing on the frontiers of energy science in search of radical breakthroughs.

“Energy efficiency cannot be seen as Job 1 and the other stuff Job 2,” Dr. Lewis said. “You’ve got to do them all as Job 1 because they all have to work.”

Dr. Chu has spoken of using coal to generate electricity as an environmental “nightmare,” but he acknowledges that the nation lacks the technology to replace it or clean it up in the near term. Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utilities, said that any solution to the climate problem must address these costs and provide consumers and electricity producers time to adjust.

“There will be major costs,” Mr. Kuhn said. “It’s a question of trying to mitigate the costs as much as possible.”

Obama’s new Green Team

December 12, 2008

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008; Page A09

 

The Obama administration has ambitions for a radical change in U.S. environmental policy. But President-elect  Barack Obama did not pick radicals to lead it.

This Story

Instead, the three officials tapped for leadership posts on the environment are not activists but regulators who have spent years in the weeds of such issues as mercury emissions, brownfields and black-bear hunts.

They will inherit the usual issues — dirty air, dirty water, brownfields and red tides — plus an unprecedented one. Obama has promised to cut back U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases — a proposal that could set off an enormous political fight.

A review of their records and past statements reveals little about the exact policies they would pursue under Obama. It shows they have won over some environmental activists with an open attitude and disappointed others who felt they were not pushing hard enough.

Their expected efforts to limit greenhouse gases would be more ambitious than changes they have sought in previous positions.

“It’s going to be an enormous challenge,” said Felicia Marcus, the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “To call it ‘herding cats’ would be to oversimplify it. It’s like herding dogs, cats, wolves and sheep.”

Democratic sources say Obama plans to name Carol M. Browner, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to a new position overseeing energy, environment and climate change policy from the White House. He will choose Lisa P. Jackson, who headed the New Jersey environment agency, as head of the EPA.

And, sources said, he will name Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor in Los Angeles, to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The president-elect is expected to announce the appointments next week.

Along with Steven Chu — a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who sources say will be named secretary of energy — the three will form the core of Obama’s environmental team.

Word of their appointment was greeted enthusiastically yesterday by some environmental groups. The League of Conservation Voters called the group a “green dream team.”

Industry groups were more cautious. At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Vice President William Kovacs said the group worried that the new officials would use their power to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and impose painful new costs on energy use.

“I think that they could be aggressive, and we’re hoping that they’re really going to look at the circumstances” of the economic downturn, Kovacs said. “That is our biggest single concern, because literally all three of them have a regulatory bent.”

Victor Flatt, a law professor at the University of Houston who has studied environmental legislation, said he saw a strategy behind the picks. In a legislative fight about the right way to cut emissions, he said, it would be valuable to have officials who’ve been in similar state-level battles.

“This shows a really good understanding of the negotiations that are going to go on,” Flatt said. He said that Sutley and Chu, who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, could bring valuable experience from that state. “California’s just ahead of everybody else” on climate issues, he said.

Yesterday,  Rep. Henry A. Waxman, who will be the new chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, called Obama’s picks “outstanding people.”

“It’s going to be a dramatic change from what we’ve seen in the last eight years from the Bush administration, where even some of the agencies that were supposed to be working to protect the environment were doing all they could to undermine it,” Waxman said in an interview.

Among the three tapped to be environmental officials, Browner is the best-known. During her eight years at EPA under President Bill Clinton, she led the fight for tougher air pollution standards, which the agency eventually won after a legal fight that led to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two years ago, Browner was part of a group of former EPA leaders that called on the Bush administration to impose caps on greenhouse gases. Now, she will probably be called on to help Obama do that. The president-elect says he wants to reduce emissions to 1990 levels over 12 years.

Ed Krenik, who worked as the EPA’s liaison to Congress for two years under Bush, said he worried that Browner’s new role could upset government scientists if it is seen as a deadening layer of bureaucracy.

“If there’s a concern out there, it’s probably concern amongst EPA staff” that their director would have a less direct line to Obama, Krenik said. Browner declined a request to comment.

Jackson, who led the New Jersey environmental agency from 2006 to 2008, has impressed both activists and business groups with her open leadership style. An official at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce recalled that Browner agreed to give businesses in Paterson, N.J., a brush-up on environmental laws before sending officials in on an enforcement sweep. The leader of Environment New Jersey remembered calling Jackson on her cellphone to warn that legislation was being introduced to try to weaken environmental laws.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said employees of the agency complained that Jackson was not tough enough in pushing for cleanups of polluted “brownfields,” or requiring polluters to limit greenhouse gases.

“We called her a pliant technocrat, who sort of time after time did the wrong thing, but did it charmingly,” he said.

But environmentalists credit her with stopping New Jersey’s controversial bear hunt and urging Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to adopt an aggressive goal on climate change. The state committed to reducing emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

“I think she pushed [Corzine] as far as she could,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. Still, New Jersey has found it difficult to say how it will reach those goals. A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said a climate action plan is overdue but expected next week.

Jackson declined to comment yesterday.

Sutley, tapped to lead the council on environmental quality, had worked for California Gov. Gray Davis (D). Marcus, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, supervised Sutley in the 1990s when she was a senior policy advisor at the EPA. Marcus described her as a quick study, easily able to master the technical details of any controversy.

“She’s one of those people [to whom] you give the toughest issues,” Marcus said. The Obama transition team did not respond to a request to interview Sutley.

Staff writer Philip Rucker and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.