Obama’s Stealth War on Global Warming

Stymied by Congress, President Obama is staffing his administration with appointees ready to take aggressive action on climate change.

A farmer ploughs his last furrow in his field with his team of Shire horses, in Wiltshire, England, Feb. 15, 1937. 
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Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:59 a.m.

As Pres­id­ent Obama tries to fight glob­al warm­ing without any back­ing from a grid­locked Con­gress, he’s us­ing every weapon in his ex­ec­ut­ive ar­sen­al. His En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency will soon roll out con­tro­ver­sial reg­u­la­tions on car­bon pol­lu­tion from coal-fired power plants. He’s told every Cab­in­et agency to look in­to ways it can use its au­thor­ity to act on cli­mate change. And now the ad­min­is­tra­tion is stock­ing the ex­ec­ut­ive branch with an army of new ap­pointees who have a his­tory of work­ing ag­gress­ively on cli­mate is­sues and clean en­ergy, of­ten from lead­er­ship jobs at en­vir­on­ment­al ad­vocacy groups.

It’s not sur­pris­ing to see a pres­id­ent name a top nom­in­ee — for Cab­in­et sec­ret­ary, say — who has led the way on an is­sue the White House cares about. In his first term, for ex­ample, Obama named as his En­ergy sec­ret­ary Steven Chu, a No­bel phys­i­cist who had de­voted his ca­reer to fight­ing cli­mate change. With the ex­ec­ut­ive branch the only av­en­ue for the pres­id­ent to make an im­pact on cli­mate policy, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is filling out the second and third tiers of agen­cies — in­flu­en­tial work­horse po­s­i­tions such as chiefs of staff, as­sist­ant sec­ret­ar­ies, and heads of reg­u­lat­ory com­mis­sions — with ap­pointees just as de­voted to the cause, with the ex­pect­a­tion that they’ll muscle through a cli­mate and clean-en­ergy agenda wherever they can.

The strategy is draw­ing cheers from en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and fire from con­ser­vat­ives, who both agree that these be­hind-the-scenes po­s­i­tions have a siz­able im­pact on shap­ing policy. “The pres­id­ent has made it “¦ clear that he wants fur­ther ac­tion on cli­mate to be a big part of his leg­acy,” said Frank O’Don­nell, pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch. “He’s not go­ing to get co­oper­a­tion from Con­gress, so the only way to carve out a leg­acy on cli­mate is to have folks at fed­er­al agen­cies that can make things hap­pen. Some of these jobs which no one’s ever heard of are be­ing filled by people who can make things hap­pen.”

Scott Segal, who lob­bies for coal com­pan­ies with the law firm Bracewell & Gi­uliani, wrote in an e-mail to Na­tion­al Journ­al, “En­ergy- and en­vir­on­ment­al-policy de­vel­op­ment has al­ways been more about work­horses than show horses. The sub­ject mat­ter is ar­cane, and there­fore the role of the less vis­ible ex­ec­ut­ive ap­point­ment in ex­ec­ut­ive agen­cies looms large as com­plic­ated is­sues like car­bon policy loom on the near-term event ho­ri­zon.” Segal ad­ded, “For cer­tain of these roles, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has shown a troub­ling pre­dis­pos­i­tion to nom­in­ate in­di­vidu­als from the act­iv­ist com­munity…. What is needed are real­ist­ic and dis­pas­sion­ate pro­fes­sion­als that can bal­ance eco­nom­ic and en­vir­on­ment­al ob­ject­ives with re­spect for the rule of law.”

Segal and oth­ers in in­dustry are par­tic­u­larly in­censed at Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Ron Binz to chair the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, a re­l­at­ively ob­scure pan­el that non­ethe­less wields sig­ni­fic­ant reg­u­lat­ory muscle in im­ple­ment­ing en­ergy policy. Binz, a former chair­man of the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion, drew out­rage from the coal in­dustry for help­ing to write a state law aimed at shut­ting down coal-fired power plants. In state­ments and speeches, he’s been up front about his philo­sophy of en­ergy: He backs re­new­ables over fossil fuels. His per­son­al web­site has a “Philo­sophy” list­ing a series of talks and state­ments cham­pi­on­ing re­new­able en­ergy. In an ed­it­or­i­al slam­ming Binz as “rad­ic­al,” The Wall Street Journ­al called him “the most im­port­ant nom­in­ee you’ve nev­er heard of.” As the drum­beat of op­pos­i­tion to Binz has in­creased, a group of en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists hired a Wash­ing­ton PR firm, VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions, to cam­paign for him as he heads in­to what looks like a tough and testy Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion pro­cess. (Binz de­clined a re­quest for an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, say­ing he in­tends to re­frain from speak­ing to the press un­til after his Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion.)

Also rais­ing eye­brows among con­ser­vat­ives is Obama’s Ju­ly ap­point­ment of Kev­in Knobloch, former pres­id­ent of the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists and a long­time play­er in the world of cli­mate policy and ad­vocacy, as the En­ergy De­part­ment’s new chief of staff. “I can­not ima­gine a mo­ment in his­tory when we have had a win­dow where the De­part­ment of En­ergy’s mis­sion has been more im­port­ant,” Knobloch said of the de­part­ment’s plans to toughen en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards and in­nov­ate ways to burn fossil fuels more cleanly.

“Someone like Kev­in Knobloch — an ap­point­ment like that would have been less likely in the first term,” said Paul Bled­soe, a seni­or cli­mate-policy ad­viser in the Clin­ton White House. “The chief of staff to the En­ergy De­part­ment, In­teri­or, EPA — those are im­port­ant jobs. Those are people with a great deal of in­flu­ence.” O’Don­nell, pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch, said, “I can’t ima­gine why Kev­in would take that job un­less he had a chance to do something big — something his­tor­ic.”

Mean­while, earli­er this month, the Sen­ate con­firmed Den­nis Mc­Ginn as as­sist­ant Navy sec­ret­ary for en­ergy in­stall­a­tions and the en­vir­on­ment. Al­though the po­s­i­tion is little known, the ap­point­ment of Mc­Ginn, a re­tired Navy vice ad­mir­al who headed the Amer­ic­an Coun­cil on Re­new­able En­ergy, sig­nals Obama’s in­tent to keep us­ing the Pentagon to drive re­new­able-en­ergy tech­no­logy. Mc­Ginn has served as co­chair­man of the CNA Mil­it­ary Ad­vis­ory Board, which au­thored a prom­in­ent pa­per ur­ging the de­fense com­munity to pri­or­it­ize cli­mate change as a na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sue. He also has served as a fel­low at the Rocky Moun­tain In­sti­tute, a think tank that pub­lishes pa­pers ad­voc­at­ing policies to fight cli­mate change and pro­mote re­new­able en­ergy.

“The ap­point­ment of Denny means this is not just a one-and-done is­sue,” said Douglas Wilson, a former as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of pub­lic af­fairs for the Pentagon. “What we’re see­ing in these ap­point­ments is an ef­fort not to have place­hold­ers but people who have his­tory in clean en­ergy.”

Amy Harder contributed to this article.
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