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Obama Unveils Environmental, Energy Policy Team

December 15, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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President-elect Barack Obama named a former head of the EPA and a Nobel prize-winning scientist to his energy and environmental policy teams Monday. Analysts discuss how Obama's picks will carry out his agenda.
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KWAME HOLMAN: President-elect Obama introduced his energy and environment team in Chicago late this afternoon.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained all-hands-on-deck effort, because the foundation of our energy independence is right here in America, in the power of wind and solar, in new crops and new technologies, in the innovation of our scientists and entrepreneurs and the dedication and skill of our workforce.

Those are the resources that we have to harness to move beyond our oil addiction and create a new hybrid economy. The team that I have assembled here today is uniquely suited to meet the great challenges of this defining moment.

KWAME HOLMAN: Steven Chu, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, was nominated to head the Department of Energy. Currently he’s director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

STEVEN CHU, Energy secretary-designate: In our current economic crisis, people are losing their jobs and homes, companies are collapsing. Some say we have to concentrate exclusively on re-establishing the health of the economy.

I look forward to being part of the president-elect’s team, which believes that we must repair the economy and put us on a path forward towards sustainable energy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Carol Browner, who led the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration, will head a new office based in the White House charged with coordinating energy, environmental, and climate policies.

Taking the EPA job Browner once held will be Lisa Jackson, currently chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. She also ran that state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

And Nancy Sutley, a Los Angeles deputy mayor for energy and environment issues, was tapped to head the White House-based Council on Environmental Quality. She has served as an Obama transition adviser.

Mr. Obama was asked about off-shore drilling and about how quickly he would allow California to enforce its vehicle emissions standards, a move halted by the Bush White House.

BARACK OBAMA: Both are items that my environmental team, as well as my energy team, are going to be reviewing in the weeks to come, but I think it is very important just to look at the history when it comes to the regulation of emissions in California.

Consistently, California has hit the bar and then the rest of the country has followed. And rather than it being an impediment to economic growth, it has helped to become an engine of economic growth.

And one of the key points that I want to make at this press conference — and I will repeat again and again during the course of my presidency — is there is not a contradiction between economic growth and sound environmental practices.

Mr. Obama said he will name another member of his environmental team later this week, the secretary of the interior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner has more on the story.

A new energy economy

Michael Oppenheimer
Princeton University
Steven Chu took hold of a laboratory which has been a leader for over 20, maybe 30 years in energy efficiency and new, renewable energy technologies, like new batteries.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the president-elect's energy and environment team, we turn to Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and a member of the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Panel on Climate Change. He was an adviser to the Obama campaign, but he is not connected with the transition.

And Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power-generating and transportation companies. Many of its members include coal-fired electric utilities. He's also a partner at the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani.

And welcome to you both.

Professor Oppenheimer, let me begin with you. President-elect Obama's clear focus today was on this, creating this new energy economy. What does this team, these individuals bring to that?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: Well, first of all, they bring a very high level of experience at environmental regulation and at getting things done.

Carol Browner, during her period at EPA, transformed the regulation of air pollution, for instance, implementing much tougher standards on fine particles and ozone, which are key pollutants that are actually killing people.

Steven Chu took hold of a laboratory which has been a leader for over 20, maybe 30 years in energy efficiency and new, renewable energy technologies, like new batteries, which are what we are going to need in the future to reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.

And Lisa Jackson is well-known for being involved as a professional in enforcement at EPA and then later leading the New Jersey agency. She is a very conscientious person who listens to both sides, but then, in the end, gets things done and, in fact, was pretty key in helping Governor Corzine implement his regulations on global warming. And New Jersey has been in the forefront.

Will politics get in the way?

Scott Segal
Electric Reliability Coord. Council
The question is whether they'll let the politics that is often associated with environmental protection get in the way of being able to offer actual sound advice on what technology can actually achieve.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Scott Segal, what would you add to that, in terms of the team?

SCOTT SEGAL, Electric Reliability Coordinating Council: Well, the team shows pragmatism. The team shows a knowledge of what technology can really do. The question is whether they'll let the politics that is often associated with environmental protection get in the way of being able to offer actual sound advice on what technology can actually achieve.

I like the appointment, for example, of Lisa Jackson, because she's somebody who's had to deal with a state that has large populations, that has scenic beauty, but also has large industrial production. And she's had to achieve a sense of balance.

What I hope -- and what I heard today in the press conference is that we are going to view as an opportunity the addressing of our environmental problems, hopefully through a suite of things like incentives for new technology to be brought to market, grants, loan guarantees, and the like.

That makes it consistent with the president-elect's overwhelming objective of a new economic stimulus program, which I think has to be really, if we're all honest with ourselves, the first priority when he gets into office.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Oppenheimer, follow up on that. Let's talk about Steven Chu. Now, he, as you said, at the lab has been working, redirected their focus a little bit into new technologies, new energy technologies, but he's also talked about raising gasoline prices here so that Americans start paying more like European levels for gas, to encourage them to move to hybrid cars. So it's a bit of carrots and sticks, isn't it?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: That's right. Chu has indicated that he understands that good environmental policy should be aimed at, one, reducing pollution in the short term, but also bringing about innovation in the long term. And to do that, you do need carrots and sticks.

You need the incentives, like tax incentives, to encourage industry to go look for and invest in the research necessary to demonstrate the new technologies, but you also need strong regulations -- in this case, you need to put a cap, a declining cap or a limit on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases -- essentially, to force industry to pay attention and to make the reductions that are necessary.

And Chu has indicated that he understands both sides of that equation.

Balancing the economy, environment

Michael Oppenheimer
Princeton University
Carol Browner may have to bang some heads together here to carry out the president-elect's proclaimed goal of reducing emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2020 and then making very deep cuts thereafter.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Scott Segal, so is industry, the industries you represent, worried about that, his record and also Carol Browner, of course, who really confronted industry and pushed through very tough air quality standards when she was head of EPA in the Clinton administration?

SCOTT SEGAL: I would say that most in industry at this point are cautiously optimistic that there's pragmatism in this team, but also are a little apprehensive over what could be the net result.

Let me take an example from Carol Browner's last tour of duty in the administration of Bill Clinton. In that capacity, for example, she pushed very hard on standards for particulate matter and for ozone, sometimes called soot and smog. Those were very aggressive environmental standards and, in fact, caused a great deal of worry on the part of folks within the Clinton administration who were interested in economic consequences.

The biggest difference between then and now is the state of the economy. Credit markets are incredibly weak right now. You know, the most recent reports show that we're entering extra months of recession and we'll have a great deal of difficulty coming out of it.

The interesting question is, if Carol Browner made the same recommendations today that she made then, would the government adopt the same policies?

And my thought is, from listening to Barack Obama very carefully, that he is pragmatic. Job number one is chasing that economic recovery. He must prove up his bona fides on the economy.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Oppenheimer, what's your view on this, this question that Barack Obama did keep emphasizing today? He said he didn't see a conflict, essentially, between economic growth and, I think he said, sound environmental policy.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: That's where I think Scott has actually presented a false dichotomy there. What the president-elect was saying was that, if we can get a green economy going, if we can solve the greenhouse gas problem, that will actually be good for the economy. It will stimulate the recovery. Green jobs are good in an economy where jobs are disappearing entirely.

So I look for Carol Browner to actually exercise a tough hand, a firm hand to help industry do the things that will be good for both the economy and for the environment.

And, you know, it's not going to necessarily be easy, although Steven Chu and the new secretary of state-designate, Hillary Clinton, are strongly in favor of action on this problem, and although the president has made perfectly clear exactly what he wants to do, which is to reduce emissions quickly, yet there are others in the administration who may have different views.

For instance, Larry Summers had a different view. The new head of the National Economic Council, he had a different view when he was in the Clinton administration.

So Carol Browner may have to bang some heads together here to carry out the president-elect's proclaimed goal of reducing emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2020 and then making very deep cuts thereafter.

Obama juggling several goals

Scott Segal
Electric Reliability Coord. Council
What I'm hearing the president-elect say is, first, we examine what we can get out of an incentives-based approach, then we'll talk about regulations as time goes on and the economy recovers. You can't do everything at once.

SCOTT SEGAL: The president-elect has many announced goals, and one of which is to embrace an aggressive position on global climate change, but you can't do everything at once. This false dichotomy that was referred to is not false at all if you try and do everything simultaneously.

Barack Obama is too smart to do that. He will listen to the diversity, the spectrum of opinion that he gets. And just like his interest in Doris Kearns Goodwin's "A Team of Rivals," the same thing is going to occur on environmental policy. He'll listen to a diverse array. We believe he'll hew to a more pragmatic course.

MARGARET WARNER: Final word from you, Professor?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Yes, this is a president who can walk and chew gum at the same time. He has enough political strength, I think, to get more than one thing done. We want to see the economy protected and get back on the right track, but solving the environmental problems is part of that, solving the economic problems, too.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly for you, Scott Segal, it didn't sound from what the president-elect was saying today that he was suggesting this was going to be soft pedaled in the interests of pushing economic growth.

SCOTT SEGAL: I'm not talking about soft-pedaling. I'm talking about phasing.

I think what this -- what I'm hearing the president-elect say is, first, we examine what we can get out of an incentives-based approach, then we'll talk about regulations as time goes on and the economy recovers.

You can't do everything at once. Anyone who tries is going to fail.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I'm sure we'll be back to see which of you is right. Thank you both.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Thank you.

SCOTT SEGAL: Thank you.