President Obama's Cabinet for Energy and Climate
What should the U.S. Department of Energy look like in the new era of carbon control, and who should run it? One proposal on the table is to form a National Energy Council.
November 10, 2008
Barack Obama mentioned the environment and energy in his acceptance speech in 2008. (Gabbec photo).
We now know, at least, that Sarah Palin won't take up controlling energy policy where Dick Cheney leaves off, placing the power of the vice-presidency behind the petroleum and coal industries.
The questions in Washington DC now are what hand the White House will have in coordinating energy solutions, what role each federal agency will play, and how they might be rearranged to face the challenges ahead.
Today's DOE is not readyThe Department of Energy is a logical agency to be in charge of developing technology and directing energy policy. The current DOE lacks the capacity to absorb its share of Obama's proposed $150 billion in spending on advanced energy technologies.
Many of us in the clean energy sector know DOE as a high-visibility player. It's the home of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, with programs for building technologies and cleaner cities. It's the employer of 30,000 scientists, many of whom are working on renewable energy or smart grid answers at research facilities such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Actually, those clean-energy activities have been a second priority for the department. DOE's primary role, and about half of its budget, are focused on atomic weapons and nuclear energy. It runs the National Nuclear Security Administration and is responsible for managing radioactive waste, nuclear incident response, nuclear research and nonproliferation.
The current DOE budget is less than $25 billion. Only 12 percent of that budget goes to promoting other energy sources and conservation.
With thousands of jobs within DOE related to nuclear in one way or another, it's easy to predict the agency will be anxious about how Obama's proposed investment is spent.
ARPA-EThe Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy was created by Congress in August, 2007, under the DOE. Modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E would have supported transformational energy technology research projects with the goal of enhancing economic and energy security.
Congress subsequently appropriated no funds for FY2008, and the Bush Administration requested no funds for ARPA-E in FY2009. Various energy and carbon bills have proposed long-term funding for ARPA-E out of carbon or oil revenues.
If ARPA-E is funded and expanded to develop new technologies, there will need to be sufficient policies to encourage their implementation. DOE and private-sector research have produced long lists of energy technologies that are not fully utilized.
National Energy CouncilPouring money into the DOE will mean elevating control, but how far will that reach up the chain of command?
Center for American Progress CEO John Podesta favors forming a National Energy Council. It would be a corollary to the National Economic Council created during the Clinton administration, where Podesta was chief of staff. Now Podesta is managing the transition for Obama.
The council would wield considerable power. Answering directly to President Obama, it could include the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Interior, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The council's first task would be to draft a major energy policy.
Obama's CabinetWhether the discussion is about a new NEC, or the conventional Cabinet structure, there is no shortage of speculation about who will be put in charge.
Among those being discussed:
- Resources for the Future president Philip R. Sharp
- MIT physicist Ernest J. Moniz
- Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell
- Clinton-era EPA administrator Carol Browner
- New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman
- Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius
- Congressman Jay Inslee (WA)
- California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Rendell has made energy a cornerstone of his governorship, successfully backing a renewable portfolio standard and promoting the creation of green jobs in a coal-producing state.
"If he helps Obama carry one of the biggest swing-state prizes in the election, he could have his pick of a number of administration jobs," wrote Rebecca Adams for the Congressional Quarterly, a month before the election.
Another NEC candidate, Podesta himself, has issued assurances that he will not join the Obama administration.
The Environmental Protection Agency also should play a significant role in climate change policy. Among the names that have surfaced:
- Washington Governor Christine Gregoire
- Natural Resources Defense Council executive director Peter Lehner