By: Darren Goode
Who will help President Barack Obama meet his ambitious promises to tackle climate change?
Eco-celebrities and tree-climbing protesters need not apply. This is a job for wonks.
The president’s top climate appointees and the outside advisers best positioned to shape his agenda are a team replete with heavy hitters — including green-minded business leaders, buttoned-down environmental lobbyists and bureaucrats who have spent years wrestling with the minutiae of regulations.
At the outset, the group might be light in executives from the industries that would be most affected. Some of the CEOs the administration drew support from during Obama’s first term are leaving the business or moving on to other things.
Still, energy insiders overall say these types of climate thinkers can help Obama advance a second-term strategy that relies on dribbling out regulations and industry-specific agreements with less focus on pushing legislation through Congress.
“There are two types of people who can be influential here,” said Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, whose 30-year environmental career includes stops at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Hill. “Those who will shape the options that the president faces — how ambitious will the emission standard be, what the timing of it will be, that sort of thing — and those who will help the president decide whether to go forward with a given option.”
Here are several crucial players in the climate debate:
1. Denis McDonough
The president’s green brain trust starts with his chief of staff — best known as the former deputy national security adviser whom the president described last month as “one of my closest, most trusted advisers.”
Less well known is the fact that Denis McDonough has spoken for years about the urgency of tackling global warming and assuring supporters that Obama’s heart is in it.
Obama “recognizes very clearly that this is an urgent problem that we’ve now lost far too much time in addressing,” McDonough said during a May 2007 discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution, speaking as a campaign surrogate. Inserting a personal touch, the Minnesota native noted, “When I was home at the holidays, there was no ice fishing this year for the first time that I can remember in a long time.”
The same year, he co-wrote an op-ed for the Center for American Progress on the “obligation” the U.S. and other wealthy countries owe to help poor nations cope with climate change.
As chief of staff, McDonough will help Obama navigate the hugely symbolic decision on whether to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline, a lightning rod for green critics. He’ll also oversee the rollout of EPA greenhouse gas regulations, one of several ways the administration can move forward without Congress.
McDonough might also have a role in choosing who gets the reins of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which signs off on EPA rules. Former OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein, who had a reputation for slow-walking regulations, left in August.
More broadly, McDonough can ensure that climate retains a prime spot in the president’s inbox — much the way former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former senior adviser David Axelrod helped steer the health care agenda in Obama’s first two years.
2. Heather Zichal
The deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change doesn’t have the name recognition of predecessor Carol Browner, who left two years ago. But the 36-year-old Heather Zichal has been pushing green policies on Capitol Hill and in the White House for more than a decade.
She quickly rose from a young House aide to top energy and environmental adviser for Sen. John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run and for Obama in 2008. She was Kerry’s legislative director as well.
Zichal is believed to be angling for a new position in Obama’s second term, perhaps as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a body that might be in line for a souped-up role.
Zichal is “very smart politically and knows what can get done because of an acute sense of the politics on the Hill and elsewhere,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent consultant and former Clinton White House aide.
“She will continue to be a force on energy/environmental issues for the White House,” Brian Wolff, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, told POLITICO in an email. “We have always viewed Heather as fair and constructive to work with on the many issues facing our industry.”
3. John Kerry
The new secretary of state is primed to take climate change to new heights on the international stage.
Former Secretary Hillary Clinton also expressed interest in the issue, but because of other demands, it was pushed to the back burner following the unsuccessful push for a sweeping deal at the 2009 talks in Copenhagen.
John Kerry’s background on the issue in the Senate is more robust, and he made his commitment clear during his Jan. 24 confirmation hearing.
Kerry still probably won’t be on the ground at United Nations climate talks this year or in 2014, said Yvo de Boer, the former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But as with the talks in Copenhagen, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wants presidents and prime ministers to come together in 2015 to try to seal a new international emissions deal. “John Kerry as secretary of state can play an instrumental role in making sure that happens,” de Boer said.
Kerry’s Senate work — for which he won praise as a pragmatic deal maker during the failed cap-and-trade discussions — is also important to continue building domestic progress on the issue. That could aid U.S. leverage in negotiations with major emitters like China and India.
“He’s been in many ways the American face on this,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.
Kerry hasn’t indicated which way he’s leaning on one of his first big decisions — whether Obama should approve Keystone. Other green-minded congressional Democrats say it’s a tough call with implications for relations with Canada and the possibility that the Canadian crude might go to China instead.
4. Bob Perciasepe and Gina McCarthy
Most of the real action on climate will stay within EPA. And the agency’s regulations are under so much fire that whomever Obama taps to replace outgoing Administrator Lisa Jackson will probably face a long confirmation battle.
That will most likely leave the big decisions to Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, who’s set to become acting administrator, and agency air chief Gina McCarthy. Both are on the shortlist of permanent Jackson successors, with McCarthy generally seen as having the edge.
Among the early flash points: EPA is due to finish its proposed greenhouse gas standards for new power plants by early April — at which point the agency is likely to start an even bigger task, major carbon regulations for existing power plants.
Power plants are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so the standards will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of Obama’s climate policy. Getting the rulemaking right will be crucial — with legal attacks from industry inevitable.
Perciasepe and McCarthy also would have to ensure that the rules’ details pass White House muster. They might be able to draw on lessons from Obama’s first term, when White House objections forced the EPA to postpone new ozone regulations.
Perciasepe first worked at EPA in the Clinton administration, heading the water office and overseeing air quality.
McCarthy held top spots in Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration, including playing a key role in devising his climate-protection plan.
McCarthy, who has clashed with Republicans while testifying on Capitol Hill, may be seen as more battle-ready than Perciasepe. She also would help Obama restore diversity among his top environmental and energy advisers. Perciasepe is widely acknowledged as having a keen intellect for complicated environmental issues and genial relations across political parties.
5. Tom Kuhn
The president of the Edison Electric Institute is almost by default a leading member of a fluid list of business and industry leaders who could influence the administration’s climate agenda. Some key corporate leaders active in the climate debate during Obama’s first term — including former Exelon CEO John Rowe, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers and NextEra Energy Executive Chairman Lew Hay — have either retired or will by the end of the year. “There is a need to identify some new names,” Rowe told POLITICO.
Meanwhile, Tom Kuhn has been a steady presence for decades at EEI, where he was elected president in 1990.
EEI is the largest trade association for investor-owned electric utilities and was the only major industry group to back cap and trade. That might have earned a lot of credit with the administration as EEI looks to shape EPA rules.
But Kuhn is also hamstrung by his organization’s diverse membership. He needs to please companies that are still heavy users of coal — and hence most at risk from EPA rules — along with those that have transitioned to natural gas or nuclear energy.
Hay could still be a friendlier business voice for Obama, although he’s planning to retire at the end of the year and will be replaced by NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira in June.
Rogers, who is leaving Duke by year’s end, has cemented such solid relations with the Obama camp that he’s sparked rumors of a potential dark-horse pick for Energy secretary. He was co-chairman of the Democratic National Convention’s host committee in Charlotte, N.C., and Duke was one of the most enthusiastic industry backers of cap and trade. It’s a major donor behind Obama’s new political outfit Organizing for Action.
Another possible corporate voice is GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who served on the U.S. Climate Action Partnership in the cap-and-trade debate and headed Obama’s now-defunct jobs council. But the belief of some circles is that Immelt is not interested in being in the mix again.
Other CEOs to watch: NRG Energy’s David Crane and Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical. Another executive, Shell Oil President Marvin Odum, was a leading oil industry participant in climate discussions during Obama’s first term and will look to keep solid relations with the administration as the company continues trying to drill off Alaska.
6. Frances Beinecke
The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council could be a key saleswoman for Obama’s policies as well as a crucial player in the environmental community’s efforts to influence the administration.
“She is the herder of the green groups on climate change,” one environmentalist said.
Frances Beinecke said she met with Obama at least three times during his first term, including her role on his Gulf of Mexico oil spill commission, as well as with chiefs of staff Emanuel, Pete Rouse and Jack Lew. She and her team also have bent the ear of Zichal, Jackson and Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley.
Another notable green is League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski, whose group had a stellar record in helping elect allies to Congress in November. He and Beinecke might be among the few environmentalists who can score a private audience with the White House.
Another key potential negotiator is Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, respected as a moderate voice who tries to broach deals with Republicans and industry.
Browner and Center for American Progress Chairman John Podesta were unquestionably players on climate change and clean energy during Obama’s first term and might be again in his second.