Obama’s Nominees and Environmentalism


“With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.”

 -Barack Obama, Inaugural Adress, January 20, 2008

Now just days into his administration, Mr. Obama has his opportunity to begin his work. Can he bring any meaningful change to the American business environment, energy economy and, in the wake of that effort, our planet’s health? He understands, certainly and shows more concern than the outgoing and intransigent human-caused-warming deniers of the Bush Era. To wit:

“All across the world, in every kind of environment and region known to man, increasingly dangerous weather patterns and devastating storms are abruptly putting an end to the long-running debate over whether or not climate change is real. Not only is it real, it’s here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon: the man-made natural disaster.

It looks like he could make a difference, if he is able to keep focus on his aims. There will be nuances in his efforts, that much is clear. But three players will loom large in his first administration, the nominees for the Environment Protection Agency, Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy. So far, the green movement is not sure how they will carry the proverbial ball.

 The EPA

Obama’s choice for Environmental Protection Agency head, Lisa Jackson, has indicated very directly that she’ll be pushing to move his agenda along. But in her Senate hearings in the United States, she has already revealed specific areas of concern that may make some “big picture” environmentalists a bit nervous.

Jackson promised to pursue the president’s five main efforts on the green front, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and other air pollutants, deal with toxic chemicals, renew hazardous waste sites and strongly guard water quality. But she has specific concerns she is intimately familiar with, as a chemist, African American and New Jersey politico of note.

Jackson considered the plight of inner-city youth, for whom she believes there is a “quadruple-whammy” consisting of poor air and water quality, lead paint and lack of space to play, to be of special import.

“On a small level, I feel like it’s part of my job to make sure that those issues not only aren’t forgotten but are seen by all people as what environmentalism is,” she said.

Those issues have been uttered at some time by Mr. Obama, but his main issue has been global warming and energy. What does Jackson’s commentary mean for the Obama agenda? Perhaps not much, but those are potential diversions for Jackson. And some may remark that we all know these issues and care for them, being that they were among the first recognized

Jackson has said she will self-review after time and see where she is as high expectations meet daily bureaucracy’s slow walk, but whether she loses sight of the bigger picture or allows her agency to is yet to be seen.

As outgoing head of the New Jersey equivalent to the EPA, with all its huge environmental issues, all more connected to her focus than the EPA’s could and perhaps should be under Obama, she’ll have a lot of “what she knows” to get over before she can get to “what she should be doing.”

The Department of the Interior

Ken Salazar has not been far from the center on anything environmental, and that center has long leaned toward less eco-conscious policies than one might expect from an Obama nominee for Interior.

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His support for drilling in major recreation and tourist area may not auger well for his green focus. However, pushing industry out of the Department for more transparent national interests may be just the focus needed.

What direction he breaks on other issues and how he carries out policy will help dictate how Obama’s public lands contribute, or detract from, his environmental and energy agenda. However, there is some unease over his selection and nomination aside from his middle-of-the-road environmental history.

Salazar is a rancher, and the green movement’s focus on cows and acreage per pound of food makes for a dent in his credentials via his pro-grazing stances. He has also remained silent on protections for wolves and endangered species, both within his administrative purview, and has been amicable to “compromise” mining and drilling agreements on federal lands.

 But what may worry environmentalists most is his oil-friendly compromise stance on offshore oil development. At his hearing to be confirmed, he indicated he was not unfriendly to the idea, with some limits:

“There are places in the Outer Continental Shelf that are appropriate for drilling. There may be other places that are off limits.”

But there is some very good news in the mixed bag Salazar brings. He has long been an advocate of alternative, clean technologies, and energy independence hawk who supports solar and wind, renewable energy sources of all sorts, and even zero-emission vehicles. More importantly, he took a strong stance in his confirmation on the agenda as it stands:

“There is no doubt that climate change and global warming is having an impact on a whole host of natural features of this world, including endangered species that we have. It is something that we will take a look at.”

Added to his renewable energy focus and big-picture connection to his domain, we may yet see the Department of the Interior become a more active and powerful environmental player. But is his support of shale and oil development persists, it may well be mitigated by its own conflicting drives: development and preservation.

The Department of Energy

There can be no doubt about Obama’s pick for the Department of Energy. Steven Chu has the chops and the credentials to carry the load on converting to a cleaner energy economy and reverse global warming.  He’s a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and has worked in recent years to find ways to counter climate change at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

He has taken public positions on the green side of every hopeful technology in the works, as detailed admirably by MIT’s Technology Review. Even the environmentally disinclined Wall Street journal offered him praise in a short article:

“In a word, he supports President-elect Barack Obama’s “comprehensive” energy prescriptions, including a strong emphasis on using energy policy to tackle climate change. Now, his only apparent obstacle is politics as usual.”

There is no doubt that Chu is the best man for Obama’s job at Energy, given his own pronouncements and his position in developing solar and other alternative, renewable energies. One particular gem from his confirmation stands out here:

“We have lots of fossil fuel. That’s really both good and bad news. We won’t run out of energy but there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

But that is not to say Chu is not pragmatic. The New York Times noted recently a subtle shift in his position over the last few months, from one of tough love, tough luvk for consumers to something, well, more Obama-like in its tone. From the article:

Last September, though, he told The Wall Street Journal, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” At the hearing, responding to a question about that statement, he said, “What the American family does not want is to pay an increasing fraction of their budget, their precious dollars, for energy costs, both in transportation and keeping their homes warm and lit.”

 So what is to be made of Mr. Chu’s shift? Likely not much. For someone who is a scientist who has worked on everything from solar tech to lasers and carbon sequestration, Mr. Chu’s words are just as telling as his Nobel Prize: He’s one smart cookie, and an even smarter choice for Energy.

 Obama’s nominees with some of the most impact on global warming are certainly a mixed bag, as his policy on energy and global warming is considered in general by the environmental movement. But there is a glimmer of that hope Americans chose in November, and that, for now, is more than the last 8 years had to offer.