Latest Obama Cabinet Announcements Bring Mixed Reactions from Environmental Community

From far left: Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy nominee; Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator nominee; President Barack Obama

Like a gourmet chef stocking his pantry, President Obama is close to having a full second term Cabinet.  In his latest round of announcements, President Obama nominated a new Department of Interior Secretary, a new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and a new Department of Energy Secretary. In announcing these nominees, President Obama stated, “They’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, and that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place.”

Each of these potential Cabinet appointees will have a direct impact on the future of national environmental regulations as well as our national energy future.  Assuming these candidates are confirmed by the Senate, these agency leaders will confront a range of important and controversial issues that may include regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal plants, promulgating regulations on fugitive methane emissions from natural gas fracking, increasing efficiency standards for medium and high-duty vehicles as well as buildings and appliances, scaling back or continuing with federal loan guarantees for proposed nuclear plants that are over budget and behind schedule, and promoting renewable energy development through federal action despite the backlash from the Solyndra scandal.

President Obama has nominated the current Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), Gina McCarthy, to head the EPA.  McCarthy will replace Lisa Jackson, who decided not to serve a second term as EPA Administrator.  At OAR, McCarthy played a key role in crafting new pollution regulations, including limits on soot and mercury emissions from power plants that will have a profound, positive impact on human and environmental health. McCarthy is also known for her willingness to work with the industries she is regulating, an attribute that will serve her well as the next EPA administrator.

With Congress deadlocked on any legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas pollution, it appears that EPA rules are the only viable means to regulate these dangerous emissions.  The 2007 Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA ruled that greenhouse gas emissions can be regulated under the Clean Air Act as a threat to human health.  For now, those regulations have been limited to new coal-fired power plants, but some see McCarthy’s nomination as evidence that the Obama administration may release new regulations for existing coal-fired power plants as well.  A wide range of leaders and organizations have already spoken out in praise of McCarthy’s nomination including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, who said in a press statement that “the president could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time.”

President Obama and Secretary of the Interior nominee Sally Jewell

For the position of Secretary of the Interior, President Obama has chosen Sally Jewell, the current president of Recreational Equipment Inc, an outdoor clothing and sporting equipment retailer.  During her nomination, Jewell pledged to follow her would-be boss with a ‘balanced approach’ to energy that would both expand and diversify production on public lands while also ensuring protection of the environment. Although it may seem like Jewell is talking out of both sides of her mouth by supporting energy production in and environmental protection of public lands, she does have a history of working to protect national parks as a former board member of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Jewell also expressed a commitment to President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, which embraces oil, natural gas, and coal as well as renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  She vowed to use the Interior Department’s scientific resources as a tool in the fight against climate change and will work to achieve President Obama’s goal of doubling renewable electricity generation by 2020.

Finally, rounding out the Cabinet’s Energy Trifecta is President Obama’s nominee to replace Stephen Chu and head the Department of Energy: Dr. Ernest Moniz.  Moniz is currently a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was an Undersecretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration.  Environmental groups and advocates have expressed mixed feelings about Moniz’s nomination.  His MIT Energy Initiative, which researches projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, receives substantial funding from BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco.  Moniz has written that he sees natural gas as a “bridge” to a very low emissions future and he is seemingly in support of controversial small modular reactors, calling them the “next generation nuclear plants.” (Side note: Small Modular Reactors received this year’s Golden Fleece Award for wasting taxpayer money).  On the other hand, as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Moniz helped write a 2010 report recommending a federal investment of $16 billion per year for clean energy innovation.

We will have to wait and see how well these new federal energy leaders push the nation to implement more renewable energy generation and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel generation and risky nuclear generation.  Before any leadership can begin, though, they must be confirmed by the Senate and at least one nomination, that of Sally Jewell, may be delayed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has threatened to hold up Jewell’s nomination unless the Obama administration agrees to a land exchange allowing construction of a gravel road through a wildlife refuge to provide access to an all-weather airport for the remote community of King Cove, Alaska.  Barring any upsets or substantial delays, these nominees should be confirmed to the Cabinet soon, and we will continue to track and report on their actions in the hopes they will become strong advocates for cleaning up our air, cleaning up our energy generation and ensuring protection of our nation’s most valuable resources.

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