Heather Zichal and Joe Aldy stood in the back of a room where President Obama was holding a press conference near the end of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The president had just flown in for the last day of the summit, on December 18, 2009, to forge an eleventh-hour deal that was enough to bridge global negotiations to the 2010 talks in Cancun, Mexico. Zichal and Aldy, two of Obama’s climate and energy aides, were e-mailing each other about their excitement.
“This is why I’m so inspired to work for him,” Zichal said in an e-mail to Aldy. “I’m so fired up for what we’re going to do in 2010.”
The White House didn’t get to do much, if anything, that it wanted in 2010. It spent half the year preoccupied by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And the administration used up a lot of time playing defense on its climate agenda. That effort died in the Senate a few weeks before the government and BP finally capped the well.
“When you have the largest oil spill in U.S. history, your priorities do change, and that’s what we were focused on,” Zichal said in an interview with National Journal last week.
A lot has changed with the administration’s energy and climate staff since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which occurred a year ago Wednesday. Aldy returned to work at Harvard University. Carol Browner, Obama’s climate and energy czar for the first two years of his presidency, resigned this year, and the independent office she led has been dissolved into the Domestic Policy Council. Zichal has retained her title as deputy adviser to the president on energy and climate change, but while she reports to DPC Director Melody Barnes, she no longer has anyone to be a deputy to.
So by default rather than promotion, the 35-year-old Zichal is Obama’s top aide devoted to climate and energy issues. But even though Browner may have had 20 years on her, and experience that included eight years as EPA administrator, Zichal is no newcomer. She worked for more than eight years on Capitol Hill in three different congressional offices, including as legislative director for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. And she was Obama’s top energy and climate aide on his 2008 presidential campaign.
“To the outside world she may be a relatively new player,” says David Axelrod, who recently left as Obama’s top political aide to run the president's reelection campaign. “But the people within the administration and the energy and environment community and people on the Hill know she’s not a new player.”
Obama’s toned-down energy agenda includes many initiatives focused within the executive branch. That’s no accident, of course. One look at the GOP-controlled House shows that almost everything Obama wants, House Republicans don’t.
“That’s why we’ve been focused on doing as much as we possibly can with our existing authority and the  budget to build on some of the Recovery Act programs where we saw significant job creation,” Zichal said from her corner office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which was Browner’s until March 15.
Even though Obama has stopped seeking comprehensive climate legislation, he is still making energy and environment issues a priority. Several speeches he has given since the 2010 midterm elections—most importantly his State of the Union address in January—prove that. That makes Zichal important, whether she's in or out of the spotlight.
“She’s sitting in the middle of an issue that is essential to our country’s future and essential to the president’s agenda,” Axelrod said. “That’s far more important than where her office sits on the organizational chart.”
Components of Obama’s plan that he can do without congressional approval include biofuels incentives and increased efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances. Executing such a plan nonetheless requires a heavy lift with an intense, interagency effort within the executive branch.
Axelrod, Aldy, and other colleagues said Zichal has shown she can lead a White House effort that's more focused on the executive branch. The oil spill, as tragic as it was, proved it, colleagues said.
“I was actually concerned about Heather during that period because she was working harder than human beings are built to work,” recalls Axelrod. “In that kind of situation you earn people’s respect, trial by fire. Certainly that was a major trial, and she came through for us in a major way.”
Zichal, like many others in the administration, had to step up like she had never anticipated during the most grueling months of the oil spill response, May through July. As Browner’s time was consumed by public experiences and senior-level meetings, Zichal took on more duties she would have not otherwise had.
“You can’t be at three places at once, so Heather stood in for her [Browner] and was perfectly competent to act on her behalf,” recalled retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the federal government’s response to the spill.
While the oil spill is not exactly in the rear-view mirror, Zichal is looking forward. She leads the White House’s efforts in Congress pushing a clean-energy standard (whose chances seem slim) and a natural-gas-powered vehicles measure (whose chances seem better). She is also intent on defending EPA’s authority to implement its politically fraught climate-change rules.
But Zichal doesn’t have a last-minute global climate deal to get fired up about, and Congress doesn’t seem poised to pass any type of major energy, environment, or climate bill anytime soon. Zichal isn’t jaded and indicates she is staying where she is for—at least—the rest of Obama’s first term.
“I have my dream job today,” Zichal says. “And we have a lot we want to accomplish in the next two years.”