WASHINGTON — When voters head to the ballot box Nov. 6, they won’t just be electing a president for the next four years — they also effectively will select a whole slew of government leaders who will chart the U.S. course on energy and environmental issues.
Although neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has specifically said who would lead the departments of Energy and Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency under their watches, the candidates have given some signals about the kinds of people they would choose.
Their ideal picks would withstand political pressure to push the White House’s priorities while drawing on relevant experience and expertise, noted Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston.
But the candidates — whether they are Nobel laureates, like Obama’s current energy secretary, Steven Chu, or longtime politicians, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — also need to survive Senate confirmation.
That process could be especially bloody if Obama wins and Republicans take Senate control, or if Democrats hold the upper chamber but Romney captures the White House.
The confirmation hearings in early 2013 will give senators a chance to highlight their complaints about energy policies and try to extract pledges from the Cabinet nominees about their plans for regulating industry, enforcing environmental laws and selling drilling leases.
“The most important element for Obama energy and environment appointments is that Senate Republicans could wage pitched confirmation battles to bully the administration into weakening public health safeguards,” predicted Dan Weiss, a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Customarily, when presidents are re-elected, their Cabinet secretaries hand in resignations, though many may be invited back. With little Cabinet turnover during Obama’s first four years in office, political experts say some changes would be inevitable if he won a second term. Among the likely contenders to leave: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Chu, who heads the sprawling
$26 billion Department of Energy.
Where Obama might seek to elevate existing agency leaders and tap state regulators, Romney has signaled that he would be looking for people with business experience.
Here’s a look at some of the potential choices:
Energy experts widely predict Obama and Romney would look to governors and lawmakers from the West in filling the top job at the Interior Department, which oversees oil drilling, recreation, grazing and other activities on federal lands and waters.
If Romney wants a Democrat in his Cabinet, Interior is a logical place for one, because many western Democrats are used to dealing with the intersection of energy development and public lands — and tend to be more supportive of oil and gas production.
Picking a member of the opposing party lets any president give a nod to bipartisanship, Rottinghaus noted. The move also could smooth the way for more contentious nominees in other posts.
Interior secretary under Obama:
— Ken Salazar, current Interior secretary: The former Democratic senator from Colorado has spent four years in the job, shepherding new policies governing renewable energy on public lands, and may stay to continue that work.
— Jay Inslee, current Democratic representative from Washington state: If he loses his bid to be governor, Inslee could land on Obama’s short list because of his history of advancing renewable energy and warning about the threats of climate change during nearly two decades in Congress.
Interior secretary under Romney:
— Luis Fortuño, the governor of Puerto Rico: Fortuño’s Hispanic heritage is a plus electorally. Fortuño has worked to balance economic development with environmental stewardship, the same challenge facing Interior.
— Dave Freudenthal, the Democratic former governor of Wyoming: With Wyoming’s 41,000 square miles of federal lands, Freudenthal would be a natural pick if Romney were looking for a Western Democrat to fill the Interior spot.
— Jim Matheson, Democratic representative from Utah. If Matheson doesn’t win another term in the House, Romney could see this fellow Mormon’s Utah background as an asset at Interior. In Congress, the Energy and Commerce Committee member has been a reliable oil and gas industry ally.
— Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s Democratic governor: Another potential Democrat in a Republican administration, Schweitzer has been a champion of wind power and other alternative energy in Montana.
— Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute: Profiled below.
– Others: Tony Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush and chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission before that; Ken Buck, district attorney for Colorado’s Weld County who made an unsuccessful tea party-backed bid for the Senate in 2010.
The Energy Department has been a top landing spot for politicians at the end of their careers, such as former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham and former South Carolina Gov. James Edwards. Presidents also sometimes pick former Transportation secretaries to take the energy role, such as Federico Peña under former President Bill Clinton — making Ray LaHood a possible Obama pick.
Obama already broke the mold for Cabinet secretaries when he picked Chu, a scientist and self-described nerd with no government experience. But with energy issues in the spotlight, both Obama and
Romney may want someone with more political experience.
“Romney is going to learn some lessons from some of the appointments that the Obama folks made and probably won’t put political neophytes in positions that are inherently political,” predicted Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the Houston-based law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani.
Energy secretary under Obama
— Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection: Esty collaborated with Gov. Dannel Malloy to develop a clean energy bank in the state that aims to lure private capital to developing alternative energy technologies and could be a model for a federal investment program.
— John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp.: As head of one of the nation’s biggest electric utility companies, Rowe is no stranger to Washington, D.C., where he has frequently spoken in favor of plans for tackling climate change by putting a price tag on greenhouse gas emissions. Rowe’s private sector experience and background with nuclear power also make him a top Romney candidate.
— Chet Culver, former Democratic governor of Iowa: After losing a bid for re-election in 2010, Culver founded a renewable energy consultancy, building on the work he did as Iowa’s top executive to advance wind power.
Energy secretary under Romney:
— Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute: After four years heading the nation’s largest oil and gas industry group, Gerard may be itching to push the sector’s priorities from within the Romney administration. Gerard is also mentioned as a potential chief of staff or interior secretary. But any of those roles would mean leaving a high-profile, high-wage job.
— Dean Heller, senator from Nevada: If the Republican loses his bid to keep the Senate seat he was appointed to last year, he could draw Romney’s eye as a Westerner with oil and gas knowledge — but also a green policy streak. Heller has played up his environmental advocacy on the campaign trail.
— David Kreutzer, an economist and a research fellow in energy economics and climate change who has been at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation for more than four years. He has been active in analyzing the effects of energy and climate change policy.
— John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp: profiled above.
— Others: Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute; Linda Stuntz, a former deputy Energy secretary under George H.W. Bush and a Romney campaign surrogate; and former Missouri Senator-turned-lobbyist Jim Talent.
Congressional aides sometimes joke that the head of the EPA spends more time on Capitol Hill than the lawmakers who call her to testify. No matter who fills the job, he or she can expect to be a target for congressional criticism — be it for over-regulating industry or weakening environmental protections. The next EPA administrator is likely to oversee high-profile policy governing greenhouse gas emissions. The agency could play a key role in regulating the use of hydraulic fracturing technology.
EPA Administrator under Obama:
— Bob Perciasepe, deputy EPA administrator. He has years of experience at the agency, where he also ran the air and water programs two times under Clinton. Previously, Perciasepe was the chief operating officer at the National Audubon Society. Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said Perciasepe is “a smart, pragmatic guy” who is “probably not likely to get too much opposition from industry.”
— Mary Nichols, the head of California’s Air Resources Board. Nichols, another Clinton EPA veteran, may relish her role advancing California’s climate change program too much to want to hop into the EPA hot seat. Picking Nichols would show that Obama wants to get more aggressive on environmental issues.
— Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s office of Air and Radiation. McCarthy is a regular witness on congressional hearing stands, where she has defended the Obama administration’s approach to greenhouse gas emissions and cutting smog. McCarthy also has Massachusetts roots; she served in a variety of environmental roles there before becoming Romney’s undersecretary for policy at the Executive Office for Environmental Affairs.
— Other options: Daniel Esty, profiled above; Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.
EPA administrator under Romney:
— Jim Connaughton, former head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under George W. Bush: Since then, he’s been in the energy industry, first as a lobbyist for Constellation Energy and most recently as an executive vice president at Exelon Corp. While Connaughton is viewed as more conservative than most environmentalists, he still could be seen as too moderate for Romney’s base. Connaughton, who like Romney is Mormon, has been a big donor to the GOP candidate and the Republican Party.
— Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency: Nally has regulated oil and gas drilling in Ohio and battled a company’s bid to send treated drilling wastewater to treatment plants. He also drew attention this year for breaking with the National Association of Clean Air Agencies over its support of EPA policies and trying to recruit like-minded state regulators to form their own organization. Nally could help politically, given Ohio’s swing-state status.
— Jeff Holmstead, lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani: The former assistant EPA administrator from 2001-2005, Holmstead was the architect of clean air policies under former President George W. Bush. He could face a confirmation battle over his client list, which reads like a Who’s Who of electric utilities and coal producers.