With the departure of Heather Zichal, his senior environmental adviser, President Obama loses a chief architect of his climate-change action plan, a sweeping and ambitious agenda on which he hopes to build part of his legacy.
Zichal, an energy-policy expert with deep roots in the environmental-advocacy community, has advised Obama on energy and climate issues since his first presidential campaign.
“Heather had her fingerprints on every climate and clean-energy success of this administration,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House.
People close to Zichal said that she has been waiting for the climate-action plan to come together before leaving.
“Heather’s replacement is going to have a big job ahead of them — she wrote the blueprint of the climate-action plan, and they’ll have to see it through,” Weiss said.
People close to the White House say they expect Obama to name Zichal’s successor from within the White House. The name most commonly mentioned is her deputy, Dan Utech, who has worked on climate and clean-energy policy in the Energy Department and the Senate.
During Obama’s transition from the 2008 campaign to the White House, Zichal helped craft the energy and climate portions of the president’s economic-stimulus law, which injected $70 billion in fresh spending on clean-energy projects into the economy. She represented the administration in Louisiana during the 2010 gulf oil spill, and helped craft a deal with U.S. auto companies to raise vehicle fuel-economy standards.
When Obama first took office, Zichal reported directly to Obama’s energy and climate-change “czar,” former Clinton Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner. Browner was expected to help move a sweeping climate-change bill through Congress, but after the effort failed, she stepped down in 2011. The move was widely perceived as a signal that Obama was relegating energy and climate issues to the back burner.
Zichal then replaced Browner as the president’s top energy aide, and struggled for years to bring climate issues back to the center of the administration’s agenda. It was an uphill battle. During Obama’s reelection campaign, his political advisers David Axelrod, Jim Messina, David Plouffe, and Dan Pfeiffer were united against her in the belief that climate change was a losing issue, politically.
But after Obama won reelection, Zichal wrote the blueprint for his aggressive climate-change agenda, unveiled in a one-hour speech in June that was hailed by some historians as the most significant address ever given by any president on an environmental issue.
Since the speech, the Obama administration has started rolling out the heart of the plan: a series of controversial EPA regulations that could freeze construction of coal-fired power plants and eventually lead to the shutdown of existing coal-fired power plants, an agenda Republicans have dubbed Obama’s “war on coal.” The plan also calls, in lieu of congressional action on climate change, for all the Cabinet agencies to use their executive-level authority to push through pieces of the climate and clean-energy agenda. It has been attacked by Republicans as a regulatory overreach on the part of the president.
Zichal took heat from many in the environmental community when it appeared, during the 2012 reelection campaign, that Obama had abandoned the issue of climate change. But this year, she’s won praise as he now appears to have made it a focus of his second term.
“She steadied the ship and allowed the president to relaunch an incredibly ambitious and important climate-change agenda,” said Paul Bledsoe, senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund, and former Clinton White House climate adviser. “She deserves a lot of credit for shepherding that after the debacle of 2009-2010.”
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