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Browner and Greener

December 12, 2008

By Max Schulz

During the October 7 debate at Nashville's Belmont University, after a summer in which gasoline prices topped $4 per gallon, Senator Barack Obama declared that the highest priority facing the next president was the nation's energy crisis.

It is curious, then, that it has taken so long for President-Elect Obama to unveil his top energy officials. The selections he is expected to announce shortly come after Obama has tapped not only his economic and foreign-affairs advisers, but his nominees to head the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Commerce, and Health and Human Services. Apparently, $1.50-per-gallon gas makes the nation's energy crisis a middling concern. But unless Obama's plan is to cultivate a recession four years in length, at some point the nation's long-term energy challenges will return to the front burner. Unfortunately, Obama's picks reveal a mindset dedicated largely to combating climate change, with little emphasis on securing the energy supplies our 21st-century economy will require.

The energy and environmental brain trust Obama is expected to announce soon includes Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu, who reportedly has been tapped as energy secretary. New Jersey's former top environmental cop, Lisa Jackson, is expected to helm the Environmental Protection Agency. Ominously, however, President-Elect Obama appears ready to install an activist overseer above these Cabinet-level positions, having reportedly invited former Clinton-administration EPA chief Carol Browner to serve as a special White House official on climate change and energy issues.

Back to Browner in a moment. First, it should be pointed out that the selection of Steven Chu at the Department of Energy is a pretty good one, all things considered. The co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics, Chu currently serves as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, so he is intimately associated with DOE's scientific mission. Press accounts paint him as a climate-change warrior, but that doesn't quite get the story right. Yes, he thinks global warming requires critical action, and that we must act before it's too late. But unlike the conventional liberal recipe for dealing with climate change—mandates, strictures, and expansions of government authority (the economy be damned!)—Chu has long focused on developing transformative technologies to provide answers to the climate-change conundrum. The first instinct of most environmental activists is to get government to regulate; Chu's instinct is to innovate.

It is also worth noting in this regard that while Chu now heads one of the federal government's premier labs, much of the work that secured his Nobel Prize was performed during his time at the legendary Bell Labs. That private-sector perspective will serve him well.

A recent New York Times profile of Chu makes the carefully worded claim that "he has spoken unenthusiastically about the Energy Department's plan to create a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas." The implication seems to be that he shares the conventional liberal concerns about Yucca (and nuclear power generally), and would not support its opening. But Chu's concern is that Yucca is not big enough to hold all the waste designated for it. Chu has actually suggested reprocessing nuclear waste, and thinks that we should expand nuclear power's share in our fuel mix. That's good news.

It's hard to be enthused about the selection of Lisa Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson served recently as head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, where she helped push through mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions. Before that, she worked at EPA for nearly two decades. Perhaps the best things to say about Jackson are that several environmental groups have criticized her for not having been a more forceful environmental activist, and that she is not Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

One wonders just what sort of real authority EPA Administrator Jackson will have, in any event, considering the forbidding presence of Carol Browner in the White House.

Browner served eight ferocious years as Bill Clinton's EPA chief, after having been Senator Al Gore's legislative director. At EPA, she worked hand-in-glove with the nation's politically minded environmental organizations (and now, handily enough, sits on the boards of several of them), and became known for favoring a heavy-handed regulatory agenda. Browner was the driving force behind the federal government's effort to force GE to spend $490 million to dredge New York's Hudson River to rid it of PCBs that—because they were buried under layers of silt—posed no environmental harm.

Browner's push for overly stringent clean-air regulations drew cries of alarm from across the political spectrum. Chicago's Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, for instance, warned that Browner's regs would quash economic development in inner cities. Fortunately, many of the Browner EPA's more aggressive actions were reversed in the legislature or through the courts—in fact, some of her employees wound up facing criminal charges for falsifying evidence and manipulating lab results. Far-left environmentalists are more likely to be cheered than troubled by that fact, of course.

What is generally missing from the Obama green team is a recognition of the critical need to increase the supplies of energy that power our economy. It's one thing to pine for a day when everything runs on clean, green energy; it's quite another to bravely acknowledge that fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal (along with nuclear power) do the heavy lifting in our energy economy, and will continue to do so for years to come. Energy issues gathered steam over the summer because consumers were fed up with skyrocketing prices. When the economy picks back up, and demand for oil with it, prices will likely soar once more. Nothing in Obama's impending selections suggests a desire to address those fundamental supply questions.

Ironically, Obama did make an exceptional pick on the energy front—but he did it three weeks ago and in a different context. On November 22, the president-elect picked Gen. James Jones to serve as national-security adviser. Not only is Jones a decorated soldier, he currently leads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy. In addition, he serves on the board of directors of Chevron—one of the Big Oil behemoths Obama has excoriated. Jones has examined many of the truly pressing energy and environmental issues from the perspective of economic and national security. He understands the complexity of international energy markets. And he brings a seriousness to energy questions that, frankly, is lacking at the top of Obama's green team. With luck, Jones will emerge as a leading voice in the administration, and as a check on climate-change czarina Carol Browner's regulatory zeal.

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