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Obama energy policy, Part One: Czarinas and ranchers and (Smokey) bears, oh my

December 16th, 2008
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If there were any doubts about where the Obama administration wants to push US energy policy, those doubts were erased by the President-elect’s key choices for his energy and environment team this week. Or were they?

Of course, the very fact that Barack Obama has created a team that intertwines environmental policy with energy policy pretty much says it all: Climate change will be the tail that wags the energy dog under Obama.

I’ll save discussion of the President-elect’s choice for energy secretary for next week’s blog. This week the focus is on the other members of the energy and environment team.

There is a feeling of Clintonesque deja vu with respect to the choice of Carol Browner to serve as the new administration’s “Energy and Environment Czar.”

(Uh, wouldn’t that more correctly be “czarina?” And shouldn’t we be more circumspect in anointing politicians with a title redolent of autocracy while the Russians seem to be reverting to that practice now? But I digress.)

Browner was the longest-serving head of the Environmental Protection Agency, under the majority of both Clinton terms. The highlight—or lowlight, as some of us see it—of her EPA tenure was her push to eliminate the gasoline oxygenate additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) from the nation’s fuel supply and to ensure that the US has approximately 1 gazillion boutique fuel formulas for reformulated gasoline (RFG). Most amusing moment: When the RFG mandate led to gasoline price spikes (wow, to more than $2 per gallon!) in the Milwaukee-Chicago region in 2000, Browner led a fact-finding mission to Midwestern states—some of which were suing EPA to get a waiver on the RFG mandate—and concluded that the federal investigation had thus far turned up “no reasonable answer” for the rising prices.

For you film buffs, that was her Captain Renault moment: “I’m shocked! Shocked to find gambling going on here,” said the Vichy chief as he pockets his winnings during a Nazi raid of the casino in Casablanca.

Count on Browner to push for regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from vehicles.

Browner’s former special assistant at EPA, Nancy Sutley, is being tabbed to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. A deputy mayor for energy and environment for Los Angeles, she has advocated regulation of GHGs at the local level as a response to California’s recent outbreaks of forest fires. Still wondering here, though, how having all of us drive Segways will outlaw lightning strikes and idiot campers. Can’t wait for the PSAs of Smokey the Bear chiding us for not using mass transit enough.

Not much is known outside of New Jersey about Obama’s choice for EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, other than the mixed reviews she got for running that state’s Department of Environmental Protection. But Jackson is on record as advocating for mandatory reductions in GHGs, a stance EPA has been struggling with since the US Supreme Court in 2007 said the agency could indeed regulate GHG emissions. Looks like that struggle is over. On the other hand, some environmental pressure groups have taken her to task for not being tough enough on industry regarding Superfund sites.

Obama’s choice of Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to head the Department of the Interior is also a mixed bag. Salazar, a longtime farmer and rancher, has taken potshots at Interior for its moves to open Colorado’s Roan Plateau to gas drilling and to lease oil shale lands. That would seem to further cement the new administration’s stance as being opposed to domestic resource development.

On the other hand, however, the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States praised the Salazar pick. Interestingly, IPAMS contends that Salazar “will play a pivotal role in meeting the administration’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy security.”

IPAMS added, “Natural gas production in the Intermountain West will become even more important as President-elect Barack Obama seeks to carry out his campaign promises of making our nation less dependent on foreign sources of energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-seven percent of the natural gas consumed in the US is produced in North America (27% of it in the West), and since it emits just over half the CO2 of coal, we will need even more natural gas in order to reduce our carbon footprint in coming years.”

IPAMS reasons that Salazar is “someone who understands that there is a direct connection between federal lands and access to affordable, domestic, clean natural gas.”

No, IPAMS hasn’t lost it (although I imagine some Sierra Clubbers spewed their lattes when they read IPAMS’ reference to natural gas development creating “green” jobs). Despite what some mainstream media outlets have reported, Salazar isn’t totally opposed to Roan Plateau gas drilling; he favors development but in a much more restrictive manner than the Bush administration sought.

On the other hand, just a month ago IPAMS expressed concern about the approach to Roan Plateau gas drilling that Salazar favors. The fact that this group—with a track record of being fiercely pro-development—is taking such an accommodating stance on someone with whom it has butted heads in the very recent past and is talking up natural gas as a green, climate-change solution speaks volumes about how the industry now perceives Obama. That is to say, giving the President-elect the benefit of the doubt as a reasonable centrist open to all views on energy policy, at least until he reveals himself to be a disciple of the Church of Gore.

On the plus side for the Salazar pick is that it has outraged environmental pressure groups. A coalition of 141 such groups recently launched an e-mail and letter-writing campaign in support of Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) getting the Interior slot; they are enraged that the job is going instead to Salazar, someone who has perhaps sipped, but not drunk deeply, their Kool-Aid.

Anyone who irks that many environmental extremists can’t be all bad.

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