Obama assembles cabinet ready to address energy, climate-change issues

January 1, 2009 By and    

With President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet choices complete, the most popular Washington parlor game has shifted from “whom” to “what.” Perhaps the best way to figure out what policies he will pursue is to look at whom he chose and what they’ve done.

For the propane industry, the president-elect’s choices for his cabinet and advisers in energy, environment and transportation bring new and familiar faces; Obama believes his choices show his determination to quickly address global warming and to develop alternative forms of energy. For those in the carbon-based fuels industry, this may come as a jolt to the senses – you’re no longer at the top of the energy agenda.

While no one can predict what the president-elect will accomplish once he is sworn in, Obama has broadly outlined an economic plan and is pushing Congress to enact an economic stimulus bill as the first priority of the new Congress in 2009. He has said he wants some of this package to be focused on health care and climate-change issues as well.

Nominated team
For secretary of energy, Obama has chosen physicist Steven Chu. Chu is the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and a Nobel laureate. He is a proponent of reducing greenhouse gases through new energies and seen as the leading advocate of this view. Upon his introduction of Chu, and with an indirect reference to the Bush administration and climate change, Obama said, “His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science. We will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that those facts demand bold action.”

For head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obama has nominated Lisa Jackson, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection under former Wall Streeter, senator and current Gov. Jon Corzine. New Jersey has had some of the most challenging environmental problems in the country. However, controversy quickly arose from some environmentalists who accuse Jackson of being too close to industry and for not cleaning up the state’s toxic wastes.

Obama also announced that Carol Browner will fill a newly created position in the White House as energy “czar,” and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley will head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. Browner was the long-serving EPA administrator during both terms of the Clinton administration and a former staffer to Al Gore during his Senate term. Sutley worked for Browner in the Clinton administration and served in the California EPA.

Some Obama energy policy critics are taking comfort in the choice of Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., for secretary of the interior. Salazar, a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member, supports offshore oil drilling. While Obama said during the campaign that he was open to offshore drilling, now that he is about to take office he has modified that stance.

With the choice of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, it would appear that subsidies for corn-based ethanol are likely to remain. However, there is likely to be a significant debate on the issue as corn-based ethanol is being challenged as never before.

As the second Republican nominated for the Obama cabinet, retiring Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., has been tapped for transportation secretary. He was a member of the House Appropriations Committee and helped oversee federal spending. As a legislator, LaHood has understood the concerns of small business and the challenges of the propane industry. With so much of the propane industry’s efforts traditionally before the Department of Transportation, the challenge for the industry may lie in the department’s larger agenda taking focus away from the day-to-day industry needs.

No easy task ahead
Whether Obama’s team will build consensus and move swiftly on the energy and climate-change issues remains to be seen. But he has a team in place ready to try. While many of the nominated policymakers’ professional careers are tied to climate change, economics and politics can be expected to create hurdles. For the propane industry, showcasing propane’s benefits before an administration moving away from carbon fuels will be no easy task. Just ask the coal interests.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics, and can be reached at lisabontempo@msn.com.


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