Zichal’s Replacement Has “˜A Big Job Ahead’

Deputy assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Heather Zichal will soon step down.
National Journal
Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
Oct. 7, 2013, 12:35 p.m.

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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