Obama Seen Picking Energy, Environment Cabinet Next Week

December 6, 2008

WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- In step with naming climate policy as one of his top priorities, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to soon officially designate his senior energy and environment cabinet officials, possibly next week, according to people familiar with the matter.

Obama has vowed to rewrite the country’s energy and environment policies, creating a low-carbon economy through strict regulation of greenhouse gases and shifting away from conventional fossil fuels to renewables, efficient and clean energy.

Transition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said research portfolios for the Energy Secretary, Interior Secretary and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator designates had to be finalized by this Sunday. The Obama team is also still deliberating on who to appoint as head of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and whether that person should act as a special energy/climate change czar to oversee and coordinate Obama’s policies between the different departments, or if a special position should be created.

As with his appointments, Obama is expected to announce the posts simultaneously.

None of the potential candidates could be reached for comment, and representatives of both the potential designates and the Obama transition team declined to comment.

People close to the Obama team said one of the top contenders for the energy secretary post is the former chairman of Edison International, John Bryson, one of the strongest advocates for moving the country’s gasoline and diesel-driven vehicles to electric cars. Bryson has also served on the California Public Utilities Commission, and was a co-founder and attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful environmental lobby group with strong ties to Democrats.

With many of Obama’s appointments coming from the public service, insiders say the president-elect’s team wants to appoint an energy secretary from industry, and one with the gravitas to help steer the massive Department of Energy into a new green era. That’s one of the reasons that Bryson, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm are now said to have pulled ahead in consideration in front of another contender, Dan Reicher, director of Google’s climate change and energy initiatives division.

Sibelius recently won political kudos in the Democratic ranks for her successful prevention of a new coal-fired power plant approval in her state on the grounds that it would produce greenhouse gases.

The EPA Administrator in the new administration will play a much more powerful and influential role that previously, especially as the agency moves forward with drafting a rule to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The head of California’s Air Resources Board Mary Nichols was originally a front-runner for the position, but since Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., took over the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – the panel that drafts climate change legislation – having a triumvirate of Californians crafting greenhouse gas regulations has hurt her chances. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., is chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee responsible for Senate climate bills. Some fear that legislation drafted by a California delegation wouldn’t be able to get through Congress wary of the impacts on the entire economy.

New Jersey’s former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Lisa Jackson, is now said by several people close to the transition team to be the top pick, though they say it’s far from a done deal. Jackson was also one of the chief proponents of the regional greenhouse gas program, one of the first carbon dioxide cap-and-trade programs in the U.S.

World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash was also a serious contender, but two insiders said he wouldn’t be well received because of the perception of being too closely tied to environmental groups, and not enough experience with industry.

“Clearly he was and is a candidate, but industry will tend to say, that’s an extreme choice, and that’s not what Obama seemed to be about,” said one person close to the transition team responsible for designate recommendations.

The Interior Department appointment will also be a strategic pick for Obama, especially as the debate over offshore drilling is expected to pick up in the new year, though oil prices down to 2005 levels have helped to erode the political urgency of the issue.

Two people close to the transition said the final two candidates are Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, whom Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is said to support, and Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants in the post.

Although, historically, the Interior position in a Democratic administration has gone to an inter-mountain western state official, California has been a vociferous opponent of offshore drilling and a representative from that state would likely play hardball on new Outer Continental Shelf exploration.

Transition team insiders say there’s no decision yet on whether to appoint a special energy/climate czar. “They don’t know what the job would be,” said one person close to the team. “They’re talking about a climate change czar, an energy czar, and a national environmental council similar to the National Security Council,” he said.

He added that Al Gore is lobbying hard for the White House to instead use the existing council on environmental quality, only strengthened to better coordinate policy between the agencies.

Source: CNN

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