TOPICS > Science

President Obama Nominates Candidates for Energy and Environmental Team

March 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At the first cabinet meeting of his second term, President Obama announced nominations for the positions of budget, energy, and environmental policy. Gwen Ifill talks with lobbyist Scott Segal of Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, to learn more about the president's picks and larger agenda.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: President Obama convened the first Cabinet meeting of his second term today, even as he continued to fill seats left open at that table.

Sylvia Burwell, the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, was nominated to head the Office of Management and Budget. She served as deputy director of that agency during the Clinton administration. And the president’s picks on energy and environment brought other policy priorities into sharper focus.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Everybody, have a seat. Have a seat.

GWEN IFILL: The president filled two more seats for his second-term Cabinet this morning, the nominees: Ernest Moniz, who would be energy secretary, and Gina McCarthy, who would run the Environmental Protection Agency. Both require Senate confirmation.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: They’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place. They are going to be a great team. And these are some of my top priorities going forward.

GWEN IFILL: Moniz is an MIT physicist who runs an energy initiative on new ways to produce power and curb emissions. He also served as undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration. McCarthy already works in the administration as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. She has run state environmental agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts, working for five governors, including Mitt Romney.

Moniz and McCarthy would replace outgoing Cabinet members Steven Chu and Lisa Jackson. Early last month, the president also tapped business executive Sally Jewell to replace Ken Salazar as interior secretary. The nominees face major challenges. One imminent decision involves debate over approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would move crude oil from Canada to the Gulf. The project has drawn environmental protests, but a draft report released by the State Department last week suggested there might be minimal adverse impact if proper precautions are taken.

Republicans like Oregon Congressman Greg Walden are pressing for approval.

REP. GREG WALDEN, R-Ore.: The thing Americans care most about is, am I going to have a job? Are we going to get this economy going? Can you sign off on Keystone pipeline, create 20,000 American jobs?

GWEN IFILL: The administration is also weighing decisions on coal-fired power plants and their emissions and whether they need to be more strictly regulated.

We look at the president’s agenda and what his new team signals about how he may act.

Michael Brune is the president of the Sierra Club. And Scott Segal is a lobbyist for energy companies at Bracewell & Giuliani, LLP.

Scott Segal, if you had to look at what you saw today in these announcements, what would you say the administration’s priorities are?

SCOTT SEGAL, Bracewell & Giuliani: Well, I often remind folks on Capitol Hill that even if you oppose the president’s choice, you don’t get to pick the Cabinet yourself.

And, in this instance, I think we have got some interesting choices that I believe advance the ball forward. With respect to Gina McCarthy, she’s shown herself to be open and very direct. I don’t always agree with the final result she reaches on rules. Sometimes, the benefits and costs of those rules are both overstated and understated. And that can be problematic. But when there are problems — and there are always problems with 1,000-page EPA rules, Gina McCarthy at least wants to hear about it and interact with the regulated community.

Ernie Moniz brings a very clear-eyed approach to the Department of Energy — and here’s something interesting — an actual familiarity with energy policy, which will be a refreshing change at the Energy Department.

And, last, as far as Sally Jewell is concerned, a big question mark. As far as we know, she doesn’t have experience with the signal issues that face the Interior Department, from things like regional haze in our national parks to offshore oil and gas development to fracking on public land. These are big issues, but she has no real experience in them. Maybe she will be good, though.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Brune, as you look at the president choices and you look at his priorities, how are they lining up for you?

MICHAEL BRUNE, Sierra Club: Pretty good so far.

We’re — to take it in reverse order, Sally Jewell we think is an excellent post, has the potential to be a transformative post, because for the first time you have someone running the Department of the Interior who looks at our natural resources and economic base that can be built from them from the recreation to be found, hiking, hunting, fishing, rafting, in our natural resources as the former head of the — of REI.

Gina McCarthy, of course, has been fantastic over the last four years in helping to safeguard our air and water and our climate and has put forward some of the most powerful rules to transition towards clean energy. She is a Red Sox fan, but other than that, she seems like a great lady.

And as far as Ernie Moniz, we think that he has said some very powerful things about the role for solar in our future economy, but also the role that energy efficiency and upgrading our energy systems, what that can do to both curb carbon pollution, but also create jobs at the same time. So, we’re very encouraged by these three picks.

GWEN IFILL: As you look at the president’s priorities, what are your biggest concerns and what are your biggest — which ones are your priorities as well, starting with you?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, it all fits in the context of climate change. We’re coming after a year of record droughts, record fires, record storms and record temperatures.

And so the president has said that fighting climate change will be a top priority of his. To do that, we’re going to have to find a way to curb the carbon pollution coming from smokestacks and refineries around the country. And the administration has made that one of its signature pieces of — one of the signature rules that will come forward in the next couple years.

Keystone, of course, is probably the first, biggest test of the president’s commitment on climate change, and then finally I would say the degree to which we go all in on clean energy to serve as an antidote of sorts to all of the fossil fuel projects that some of our proponents are putting forward.

GWEN IFILL: Scott Segal, your concerns, your priorities?

SCOTT SEGAL: Well, actually, they’re not too dissimilar from what — from what Michael Brune just discussed.

 

I do think carbon is a big near-term objective and a big near-term problem as well. For one thing, the president and environmental organizations have set rather high expectations for the next EPA administrator to use existing Clean Air Act authority to address carbon.

The problem with that is, the statute was frankly not structured in a way that makes such addressing very useful or easy to do. And, therefore, the chances are that only very, very costly rule-making might emerge. Such costly rule-making will decrease job creation in the United States, will stop projects from being built.

GWEN IFILL: Let me stop you there, because you say rule-making.

SCOTT SEGAL: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And people at home don’t really know what you’re talking about.

SCOTT SEGAL: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Are you saying this is now being handled by edict, by fiat, rather than the legislative process?

SCOTT SEGAL: Well, it’s interesting.

The president himself and the last administrator, Lisa Jackson, early in their tenure suggested that really legislation was the way to go. And for an issue that is so economy-wide, shakes the economy literally to its foundations, legislation really is needed. The use of mere regulatory authority under the existing Clean Air Act is, in my judgment, improper.

And I think Lisa — and I think Gina McCarthy is a realist who will quickly realize that overbroad regulatory interpretations are probably illegal, inadvisable and are likely to stifle economic recovery in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Brune, on that point?

MICHAEL BRUNE: It seems a little — this seems a little overstated to me.

First of all, the Clean Air Act was signed by President Bush about 20 or 25 years or so ago. And what the president needs to do is simply follow the law and protect public health by curbing carbon pollution. The good news here is that clean energy in Obama’s second term is a lot cheaper than it was in his first term. The price of solar has dropped by almost 70 percent. The price of wind continues to decline, so much so that, in 2012, solar and wind combined made up 58 percent of the new capacity that was added to the grid last year.

So what we’re seeing is that clean energy can take up more of the burden in terms of our energy demand than coal and gas and nuclear power can. So, the rule-making that Scott was referring to, the burden to make that rule actually stick is a lot lower than it used to be. And, of course, we always know that clean energy creates more jobs at the same time that it cuts carbon pollution. So, the great news here is that we can have a win-win at the same time.

GWEN IFILL: You know, Scott Segal, that the second term can be different from the first term. Do you expect a big change?

SCOTT SEGAL: I don’t expect a tremendous amount of change.

But the one thing that I believe will come even sharper into focus in the second term is that when I — you know, when I first came to Washington and even at the beginning of this administration, words like energy independence or energy security were just taglines that were used almost in advertisement.

We now stand at the precipice of being able to actually embrace true energy independence, with the consequences of being able to change U.S. foreign policy, create jobs in the United States. Part of it is, as Michael suggests, through investment in renewable power. But the other part of it is through signal investments that are occurring in natural gas production and in learning new and effective ways to use our coal resources.

When the president says all of the above, he doesn’t just mean all that’s above the ground. He means fossil fuels, plus renewables. That’s the best way to make the U.S. secure and to create jobs.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Brune, you get the last word on what you expect for the second term.

MICHAEL BRUNE: You know, in that term, all of the above equals more of the same. Right? So, we do have a face choice here. We can have energy independence and fight climate change at the same time by investing in clean energy.

If we perpetuate our dependence on these extreme dirty fuels, like the tar sands or oil drilling in the Arctic, that’s only going to extend the timeline by which we’re reliant on fossil fuels, as opposed to going all in on clean energy that will create more jobs, cut carbon pollution and make our air and water more clean.

There’s a historic opportunity here for the president. And we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that he seizes it.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Brune of the Sierra Club and Scott Segal of Giuliani & Bracewell, Bracewell & Giuliani, thank you both very much.

SCOTT SEGAL: Thank you.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Thank you for having us.