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Tilting at Windmills

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December 11, 2008

A STERLING TEAM ON ENERGY, ENVIRONMENT.... There's been some disagreement in progressive circles about the strength of some of Barack Obama's early cabinet picks, but it's probably safe to say the vast majority of those on the left will be doing cartwheels in response to the president-elect's environmental team.

President-elect Barack Obama has selected his top energy and environmental advisers, including a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, presidential transition officials said Wednesday.

Collectively, they will have the task of carrying out Mr. Obama's stated intent to curb global warming emissions drastically while fashioning a more efficient national energy system. And they will be able to work with strong allies in Congress who are interested in developing climate-change legislation, despite fierce economic headwinds that will amplify objections from manufacturers and energy producers.

The officials said Mr. Obama would name Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as his energy secretary, and Nancy Sutley, deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Mr. Obama also appears ready to name Carol M. Browner, the E.P.A. administrator under President Bill Clinton, as the top White House official on climate and energy policy and Lisa P. Jackson, New Jersey's commissioner of environmental protection, as the head of the E.P.A.

The Wall Street Journal, noting these officials, reported that Obama "appears to be moving to the left" with this energy/environmental team, "after his early cabinet choices were widely seen as centrist and moderate."

Chances are, the only folks who are going to complain about this team are polluters and global-warming deniers. Given the severity of the climate crisis, and the ambitious quality of Obama's energy vision, he couldn't have picked a better team. These aren't officials you pick if you intend to just make a few tepid changes around the periphery of energy policy; these are officials you pick to overhaul the system and implement a bold, 21st-century agenda.

I often turn to Grist to read up on environmental analysis, and the team over there seems elated by Obama's new team. Here's Joseph Romm on Chu; here's Janet Wilson on Sutley; and here's Kate Sheppard on Jackson.

For the diversity minded, I'd also note that Chu will be the second Asian-American member of Obama's cabinet; Sutley will be the first openly-gay person to serve in any cabinet; Jackson will be the first African American to head the EPA; and three of the four officials on Obama's energy/environmental team are women.

Pay particular attention, by the way, to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu at Energy. Yglesias is right that the Energy Secretary has "pretty limited" responsibilities, but given this guy's considerable skills, here's hoping that the Obama administration offers Chu an opportunity to expand the office to new heights.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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It's not "moving to the left" until he actually, you know, moves. Right now, these are all the first-round draft picks; he's just assembling the team. There's no time-ordering to these appointments; it's just that he's too smart to unveil them all at the same time. When (if) he starts replacing members of the Treasury or State departments, then one can say he's "moving" somewhere.

But first he has to assemble his team, before he can "move" it anyway.

Or, more succinctly, the Wall Street Journal is being dumb again.

Posted by: Bernard HP Gilroy on December 11, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

If journalists define the effort to implement policies addressing our deteriorating environment as "moving to the left" then they will witness an entire nation "moving to the left" as more and more of us, young and old, pink and purple, red and blue, bald and hairy, so on and so on, begin to accept green into our lives!

AP and the rest of our beloved media seem to be behind the curve politically here. A better informed analysis of any move President-elect Obama's transition team makes should be seen in light of his consistent message of transcending the old dynamic and working for new policies that solve problems without doing too much perceived damage to the ideologues among us. -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 11, 2008 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Chu's confirmation hearing should be fun.

Inhoff (or any other Rep): Mr Chu, you swore on the bible to tell the truth. What does that mean to you? Do you not have enough faith in the Lord to keep us safe? What if Jesus came to you in the middle of the night and told you what most Americans already believe - that we're going to need something to keep us warm once the oil runs out? Huh?

Posted by: Danp on December 11, 2008 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

Er,

Cartwheels are not likely to greet either Carol Browner or Lisa Jackson. Carol was infamous at EPA for being a rather nasty piece of work (dig up the racism suit, BTW) And if you look at the Clinton environmental record, it wasn't all that good. Better than Bush - but that's not much of a metric.

Similar with Ms. Jackson - both the employee union and the NJ environmentalists slammed her. Industry loved her. Not exactly cutting new ground.

Unfortunately, this is another case where there is NOT a progressive going in.

A very bad sign.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on December 11, 2008 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

The problem is that Obama's program isn't "ambitious" at all. It's anemic from the start. Sure, it's a giant step beyond Bush, but that isn't saying much.

When you consider we threw $700 billion at Wall Street without blinking an eye, and without having any idea what the real problems were, what caused them, or what a proper remedy would be, Obama's $15 billion a year seems downright insignificant on alternative energy. We pissed away more than ten times that amount in tax rebates, and what did they do for the economy? Nothing.

If we're going to move beyond the world of fossil fuels and the gas, coal, oil and American auto industries, we need more than petty cash to do it. These guys can spend more than $15 billion a year just telling us how clean their energy is and how forward looking they are.

Posted by: hark on December 11, 2008 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

Remember when John McCain repeatedly declared, with a straight face and an earnest voice, that Sarah Palin was the greatest expert in the nation on "energy"?

Posted by: Bennett on December 11, 2008 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

Is Chu the first Nobel Laureate to serve as a Cabinet Secretary?

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on December 11, 2008 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

hark wrote: "Obama's $15 billion a year seems downright insignificant on alternative energy."

I agree -- especially given that we spend more than a HALF A TRILLION dollars per year on the military, ostensibly to counter "threats" which, with the exception of global thermonuclear war, are trivial compared to global warming.

Having said that, a lot depends on how the $15 billion per year is used.

The main thing that the alternative energy industry needs right now, immediately, yesterday, is incentives and support for rapid deployment of existing technologies: efficiency, wind turbines, concentrating solar thermal, photovoltaics, co-generation, etc. Much of the needed support would be in the form of tax credits to encourage private investment.

Also very helpful would be mandated feed-in tariffs for the utility industry, which have been hugely successful in Germany for spurring the expansion of distributed, small-scale solar and wind electricity generation. Mandated renewable energy portfolio standards for utilities would also be helpful.

These sorts of measures need not cost a lot -- and tax credits & other investments to stimulate deployment of efficiency and renewable energy technologies could be offset by revenue from a carbon tax or a carefully designed, 100 percent auctioned, cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.

One area where federal investment would be enormously helpful is the development of a next-generation "smart grid" designed from the ground up to integrate diverse, large & small, centralized & distributed, intermittent & baseline, electricity producers and consumers. Al Gore has referred to this as the "Electranet", suggesting that the federal government's role would be similar to that of DARPAnet, which developed what we now know as the Internet.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on December 11, 2008 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

S.P.o.t.G.S.: "Is Chu the first Nobel Laureate to serve as a Cabinet Secretary?"
Rabi was Eisenhower's Science Advisor in 1955-1957, but I don't know if that was a Cabinet rank position.

Posted by: bob on December 11, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

"Is Chu the first Nobel Laureate to serve as a Cabinet Secretary?"

No. Henry Kissinger was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize while serving as Secretary of State. The award was decided on October 16, 1973, and Kissinger served as Secretary of State from September 22, 1973, to January 20, 1977.

Posted by: JQ Heywood on December 11, 2008 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

This whole, moving to the center/right/left, seems ridiculous to me. So far he seems to be setting up a team to do exactly what he said he would in the campaign. He was always more moderate with his finacial policies, and more progressive with his environmental policies. Look, until he breaks drastically with the things he said in the campaign, I'm going to take him at his word. (And policy tweaks do to changes in circumstances, don't count.) I've always seen him as a pragmatist, and not an ideolog... So far, I believe he is proving me right.

Posted by: joyncassie on December 11, 2008 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think you can say Sutley will be the first openly GLBT Cabinet member, I don't think CEQ director has Cabinet rank. Still holding out hope for an openly lesbian Labor Secretary though (nice symmetry there, Labor was also the first Cabinet post held by a woman, under FDR)

Posted by: Kevin M on December 11, 2008 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

"the Energy Secretary has "pretty limited" responsibilities"

The great national laboratories - Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermilab, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, Sandia, Savannah River, and others - are all part of DoE. They are the crown jewels of America's basic science system in physics, chemistry, and materials science -- all the non-biological sciences, in fact. Outside of DoD, DoE is the main source for performance and funding of basic science research.

It's been decades since basic science research has had the funding it deserves and the last eight years have been disasterous. Chu, who is curently director of Lawrence Berkeley, is a clear signal that Obama intends to restore US leadership in basic science research. I don't believe he would have taken the job if he hadn't been assured that the administration would make funding the labs a high priority.

Posted by: Bloix on December 11, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, Lisa Jackson received the backing of many MANY industrial officials in recent weeks to head up EPA. Based on the track record of New Jersey on pollution issues (weak) under her "watch", and EPA's previous experience with someone from that state at its helm (paging Gov Whitman), I am not sure this is anything to crow about as a great victory for progressives. Better than serial fundraiser Johnson, probably, but geez folks, how many low bars do we have to suffer through?

Posted by: Sean Thomas on December 11, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

WHY LISA JACKSON SHOULD NOT RUN EPA — Disastrous Record in New Jersey Bodes Ill for Reforming EPA


Washington, DC —The track record compiled by Lisa P. Jackson as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection should disqualify her from serving as the next head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In many instances, Jackson embraced policies at DEP echoing the very practices at the Bush EPA which Senator Barack Obama condemned during the presidential campaign.

DEP employees describe Ms. Jackson as employing a highly politicized approach to decision-making that resulted in suppression of scientific information, issuance of gag orders and threats against professional staff members who dared to voice concerns. These reports raise troubling questions about her fitness to run an agency of much greater size and complexity. Among concerns PEER points to are –

Cases in which public health was endangered due to DEP malfeasance, including one case involving a day-care center in a former thermometer factory in which DEP failed to warn parents or workers for months about mercury contamination;
Rising levels of water pollution, contamination of drinking water supplies and poisoning of wildlife with no cogent state response; and
The state hazardous waste clean-up program under Ms. Jackson was so mismanaged that the Bush EPA had to step in and assume control of several Superfund sites.
“While Ms. Jackson has a compelling biography, little of what occurred during her 31-month tenure commends her for promotion,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Under her watch, New Jersey’s environment only got dirtier, incredible as that may seem.”

In one of her first acts, Jackson appointed the lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association as her Assistant Commissioner to oversee critical water quality and land use permits. Jackson later convened an industry-dominated task force to rewrite DEP policies and relaxed pollution enforcement through policies more business-friendly than those under Gov. Christie Whitman. Relying on closed-door deal-making with regulated industry executives and lobbyists, Ms. Jackson produced decisions, such as –

Invoking “executive privilege” to block a request filed by PEER under the state Open Public Records Act for a copy of her schedule and sign-in logs;
Pushing to privatize pollution control through outsourcing of toxic clean-ups to industry;
Abolishing the DEP Division of Science & Research after it produced damning reports on continuing contamination following state-supervised clean-ups.
“In our experience, Lisa Jackson is cut out of the same professional cloth as the current administrator, Stephen Johnson – a pliant technocrat who will follow orders,” Ruch added. “If past is prologue, one cannot reasonably expect meaningful change if she is appointed to lead EPA.”

The one area where Ms. Jackson claims national leadership is the state climate change program but PEER contends that examination of her record yields paltry results –

DEP failed to meet its first major statutory milestone in implementing the emission reduction goals of the highly touted Global Warming Response Act. A June 30th legal deadline for producing a plan identifying the legislative and regulatory “measures necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” still has not been met. At the same time, Ms. Jackson supported and Gov. Jon Corzine signed “The Permit Extension Act” which exempts thousands of projects from any new energy conservation, efficiency or requirements for solar heating or renewable energy;
New Jersey missed the historic first auction of greenhouse gas pollution allowances under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, this September because DEP was unable to adopt regulations to implement the pollution trading program that underpinned the auction; and
Jackson proposed a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that will do little to combat global warming because it sets emissions caps above current levels and contains numerous complex offsets and loopholes that undercut its effectiveness.
“Given what actually transpired in New Jersey, putting Ms. Jackson in a key position for guiding a national global warming effort would be imprudent,” Ruch concluded. “The Obama transition should take a little more time to find the right choice for this critical job.”

Posted by: PEER on December 11, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Number of Latinos? 1/2!

Way to make me look bad in front of my parents Obama!

Posted by: MNPundit on December 11, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

I met Obama’s designated domestic adviser Melody Barnes, and will email her that I and lots of scientists think Chu was a good choice.

Now, an energy question coming up in letters to Newsweek (12/15) - Glenn Sjoden at UF claims that reprocessing of nuclear fuel is relatively easy and done by other nations (like France and Japan) except the US - is he right? Is it really a good idea?

Posted by: Neil B ☺ on December 11, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B,I literally squealed with glee when I heard about Chu yesterday. The original NYT article hinting it might be him ran on my birthday last week, and I thought 'what a birthday present that would be!' and because it was such a wonderful idea, I didn't dare let myself go there. Imagine! A physicist at Energy! I have been waiting for something like this ever since the lightbulb went on and I understood the dipole moment!

Posted by: Blue Girl on December 11, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Progressives should be aware that Dr. Chu's energy research is entirely funded by British Petroleum, through a controversial $500 million dollar contract with UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Labs (as well as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The emphasis at the BP-created initiative is mainly on biofuels - and agreement on biofuels' net benefits for the earth & its people is far from universal in the scientific community. The deal has come under heavy criticism for potentially ensuring that a major oil company will be setting much of the agenda for energy research in the coming century (not to mention setting the agenda for the public universities involved - & now for the U.S. government). Not an entirely evil enterprise, perhaps, but hardly free of conflict of interests. And Dr. Chu was a major force creating the deal. So not to rain on anyone's parade, but just to add a little perspective. This appointment is very much in the mold of other Obama appointments: Super-smart, super-qualified guy - but not a progressive.

Posted by: DoloresMay on December 11, 2008 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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