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Obama’s Green Team

Friday, January 16, 2009

We can expect a proliferation of new regulations that will reach into every area of American life and commerce.

What do President-elect Barack Obama’s leadership picks tell us about the kinds of energy and environmental policies we can expect in the next four to eight years? On balance, they suggest we are in for a radical shift away from George W. Bush’s pro-market policies and back to the aggressive regulatory approach favored by the Clinton administration. Let’s take a look at Obama’s prospective appointees.

Lisa P. Jackson 

Obama’s pick for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be the first African American to head the Agency since its creation in 1970. She will be the fourth female administrator of the EPA, which seems to be a trend: four of the last seven EPA chiefs have been women. Jackson’s choice may be the only bright spot among Obama’s energy and environmental nominees. While in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Jackson’s record was one of generally cooperating with industry and streamlining permitting processes, often angering green activists who opposed any activity that made it easier to build or expand polluting facilities. Her handling of New Jersey’s Superfund sites has also come in for criticism, and her confirmation hearings could be ugly. It’s possible that Jackson will be able to bring her business-friendly orientation to the EPA—but that depends on how much independence she is granted by Carol Browner, Obama’s eco-czar (more on her below).

Ken Salazar 

At first blush, Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, who has been tapped for interior secretary, looks like a moderate. As with Jackson, some environmentalists have opposed his selection, citing his support for the confirmation of Bush’s first interior secretary, Gale Norton, and his ill-defined ties to resource extraction industries. Salazar has also comes under fire for several votes unpopular with the environmental movement, such as his 2005 vote against tightened CAFE standards; his 2006 vote to remove congressional barriers to oil exploration off Florida’s Gulf Coast; and his 2007 vote against legislation that would have required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects. Nevertheless, Salazar currently has a rating of 100 percent with the League of Conservation Voters, an extremist green outfit that has hailed him as an environmental hero for cleaving to their party line.

Steven Chu 

The selection of Steven Chu as energy secretary is another ethnically historic pick: Chu will be the first Asian American to head the Department of Energy. He has impressive scientific credentials, sharing a Nobel prize for research on laser cooling and atom trapping. Chu currently serves as director of the Berkeley National Laboratory. Chu clearly has the right background for the job; but ideologically, he’s cut from the same cloth as the rest of the Obama cabinet. Chu is an ardent supporter of greenhouse gas (GHG) control regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol, and we can expect him to push President Obama to sign a Kyoto successor agreement.

Nancy Sutley 

Carol Browner’s selection as ‘energy coordinator’ (sometimes called energy czar) virtually guarantees that the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policies will be anything but moderate.

Obama’s choice of Nancy Sutley to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality continues the trend of diversity picks: Sutley will be the first openly lesbian woman to head up the CEQ. Sutley is deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles. She previously served as a regional administrator of the EPA when Carol Browner was administrator (under President Clinton). During her tenure as deputy mayor, Sutley has enacted two clean air initiatives. One of those initiatives involved switching the Department of Water and Power (known to those of us who grew up in Los Angeles as “Drip and Tingle”) over to wind and solar power. The other initiative was a program to replace 16,000 diesel trucks at the port of Los Angeles. In each case, Sutley gave little thought to the economic impact of environmental regulation. Such negligence has contributed to California’s economic crisis and its loss of recession-proof industries such as the aerospace sector, which was pushed out of the Golden State by rigid air pollution controls.

Jane Lubchenco 

Obama has selected marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, another agency with a strong focus on climate change. Lubchenco will make that focus even stronger. She is a longtime crusader for strict regulation of GHG emissions. Lubchenco has served on the boards of the World Resources Institute, Environmental Defense, and other green NGOs. She believes that ocean acidification (a byproduct of GHG emissions) is the biggest threat to life in the oceans. Lubchenco is not content to simply promote her own views; she is also keen to stifle dissent, and was instrumental in getting Oregon’s state climatologist fired for his unorthodox views on global warming.

John Holdren 

John Holdren’s designation as White House science adviser affirms that Obama will have a thoroughly climate-focused team. Holdren, a program director at Harvard University, is a climate change alarmist who has slandered skeptics as “dangerous” forces who “infest” the Internet and media. “We should really call them‘deniers’ rather than ‘skeptics,’ Holdren has said, “because they are giving the venerable tradition of skepticism a bad name.” Regardless of the fact that hundreds of qualified scientists are dubious about elements of the “climate crisis” school, Holdren simply dismisses their legitimacy. He was solicited by Scientific American magazine to criticize Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Holdren’s review was one of the most lopsided public assaults on critical thinking about the environment in recent memory.

Carol Browner 

Carol Browner’s selection as “energy coordinator” (sometimes called energy czar) virtually guarantees that the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policies will be anything but moderate. Her two terms as EPA boss were marked by adversarialism, punitive enforcement actions, draconian tightening of environmental regulations, and the message that business is destructive of the environment and dishonest about the costs of environmental regulations. Browner’s capstone achievement, the tightening of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in 1997, sparked legal battles that raged for nearly ten years and required resolution by the Supreme Court. Throughout the debate, Browner consistently denied that cost was any consideration in setting standards, despite findings by the Office of Management and Budget that the costs of the regulations would outweigh the benefits, and despite numerous studies showing that, on net, far more people would be harmed by the economic consequences of the new standards than would be helped by the incremental gains in air quality. As a result of this bruising battle, Browner made many enemies in both business and government. 

When it comes to climate change, she is a disciple of Al Gore, for whom she worked from 1988 to 1991. Browner reportedly helped write much of Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, which called for a wrenching transformation of American society to make it “greener” and the elimination of the internal combustion engine in 25 years. Browner believes that “climate change is the greatest challenge ever faced,” and that the EPA is the agency to face it. Toward the end of her tenure as EPA chief, Browner gave the agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant, despite the fact that such gases are barely mentioned in the Clean Air Act. 


On balance, if Obama’s nominees remain true to their stated positions, it is likely that his administration will 1) try to implement severe GHG controls that will inflict major damage on an already-reeling economy, and 2) seek to restrict consumer choice through the imposition of new environmental policies. The cost of virtually everything is likely to rise, since energy is a fundamental input to production and the provision of goods and services. All told, we are about to witness an unprecedented proliferation of new regulations that will, as a recent EPA report admits, reach into every area of American life and commerce.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/the Bergman Group.

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