Obama taps industry veteran for top Energy Dept. post

An oil industry veteran is set to formally take the driver’s seat steering the administration’s policy on exporting natural gas, with President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate Christopher Smith for a high-ranking Energy Department post.

If confirmed by the Senate, Smith would become the assistant secretary for fossil energy, taking over the role he already has filled on an acting basis for six months.

Smith has been at the Energy Department in various roles since 2009, but he moved to the federal government after 11 years working mostly in upstream business development and liquefied natural gas trading for Texaco and Chevron. A former military officer, Smith also worked in the financial sector for Citibank and JP Morgan.

The White House announced Smith’s nomination amid a host of other appointments late Tuesday. The move follows the Aug. 27 announcement that the American Gas Association’s vice president of regulatory affairs, Paula Gant, would be the Energy Department’s next deputy assistant secretary for oil and gas.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has praised the “relevant industry and technical experience” of Gant and other key department personnel.

But some environmentalists — who also criticized Moniz’s own previous work studying fossil fuels — have criticized the Obama administration’s decision to tap former oil and gas industry officials for jobs setting energy policy.

In a blog post on the White House website in 2011, Smith described his passion on energy issues:

“This is an exciting time for public service, and the Department of Energy is leading a lot of innovative initiatives that are key elements to winning the future. I’d encourage young people interested in the Department of Energy to ask themselves where their interest lies. This is a diverse place: from natural gas to solar, and from science and engineering to environmental law, important work is getting done here. Coming to work every day is exciting when you’re working on something you’re passionate about.”

Smith’s position puts him in the middle of a big debate over how much American oil and natural gas should be sold to other countries. The Energy Department has so far authorized four companies to export natural gas to countries that don’t have free-trade agreements with the United States, but another 20 applications are pending review.