Obama Selects His Environmental Team Barack Obama revealed his choices for several energy posts this week, including Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu for energy secretary. Darren Samuelsohn, senior reporter for Greenwire, analyzes the picks and what the appointments may mean for future environmental policy.

Obama Selects His Environmental Team

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JOE PALCA, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca sitting in for Ira Flatow. It's not official yet, but according to unnamed aides in the Obama transition team, the president-elect has chosen people to fill some key positions dealing with energy policy and the environment.

And you know what? There's a physicist in the bunch. Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004 and a Nobel Laureate, is slated to be the new Energy secretary. Other announcements to come in the days ahead will reportedly include Nancy Sutley to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Lisa Jackson to run the Environmental Protection Agency and Carol Browner to be the White House Energy and Climate Coordinator.

You may remember Browner was head of the EPA during the Clinton administration. Well, joining me now to tell us what we know about these folks and what it might mean for energy policy in the new administration is my guest, Darren Samuelsohn. He's a senior reporter for Greenwire. He joins us from Poland, where he's covering the UN climate-change talks. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Samuelson.

Mr. DARREN SAMUELSOHN (Senior Reporter, Greenwire): Thank you so much. Good to be on.

PALCA: And if you'd like to talk about - get in on this conversation, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255; that's 1-800-989-TALK. And if you want more information about what we're talking about this hour, go to the Web site, www.sciencefriday.com, where you'll find links to the topic. And I guess, before we get into some of these picks, I wanted just to ask you, the climate talks were supposed to end today. Any news or report, or is this - everybody's going to wait for a new U.S. administration to move forward?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Well, that's - the U.S. administration has been on everybody's mind since this conference started two weeks ago here in Poznan, Poland, which is a historic city, sort of in the western part of the country. Will there be news out of this conference? That's a good question. I think a lot of reporters who are still here - it's 8:00 in Poland right now - are waiting for the conference to come to end. A lot of the people who have been sort of milling around have kind of cleared out of this conference hall, but the delegates are still working and talking, and essentially now, we're waiting for - we're not quite sure what we're waiting for, I guess, is the way to say it.

There's going to be some sort of declaration when this conference is over, which won't really have much of substance except to sort of keep the momentum going until next year, when the big conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, takes place in December of next year. That's when there is a deadline to complete a post-Kyoto global-warming agreement, and the Obama administration will be at the table then. They are not at the table now. The Bush administration is here, and basically a lot of people don't really want to have anything left to do with the Bush administration. This is all about getting ready for the Obama team, which will include all the people we can talk about who will be in Denmark next year. And largely what this has been is sort of just treading water.

We had Al Gore here earlier today, gave a speech really encouraging people to make that deadline next December, and he read a lot of Obama's comments that he has given since the election about climate change and energy, and how Obama wants this to be a top priority. Senator John Kerry, I guess, has also been here for two days of talks, talking to the Chinese and Denmark delegations, and just trying to reassure people that the U.S. Senate will be an active participant, which was a big problem with the Kyoto protocol. So, it's been interesting. Those have been the two lead American representatives. Those are both the people that President Bush defeated to have an office for the last three years.

PALCA: Yeah, interesting. Well, so, let's look at this list. Any names jump out at you as people that are going to be particularly warmly welcomed in the international community?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: I don't know that anybody knows many of these people. Carol Browner is probably the one that they would be most familiar with, though. She was the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which didn't have - you know, has a small role in the international stage. But you know, she was the top domestic environmental official. So, sure, a lot of people do know her, and everyone here is anxiously - I mean, that's been one of the pieces of buzz - everyone's been kind of one eye on the talks here and one eye back in Chicago, trying to find out, you know, who's going to be picked and when. I mean, there are, you know, probably several hundred American NGO environmental types who have been sort of watching with us reporters, trying to keep track of this.

PALCA: Who is - I mean, is the secretary of Energy - I know Steve Chu is very big on research on alternative energies. I mean, how big a role could he play in charting the future of the U.S. energy policy? I mean, it's obvious he plays a big role, but how much influence do you think someone like that is going to have, who's mostly - well, his history - his background is more in science?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: It's a fascinating pick, if you think about sort of the, you know, the Nobel Prize Laureate from 1997 in physics. I mean, you know, that's certainly making a statement. If you think about the last eight years under President Bush, there's been a lot of criticism about Bush ignoring science. So, to bring in someone of that caliber, I think, will say something. I mean, if you look at sort of the past couple of Energy secretaries, they haven't been - I guess, Sam Bodman came in; he's the current Energy secretary and he - an academic, very well-known, but didn't have a lot of influence, I think, in the Bush administration. Before him was a former senator, Spencer Abraham.

So, with Steven Chu, I think you're going to see probably - you see with a lot of these energy and environmental picks sort of lower-profile people than maybe your governors, you know, your Senator Clintons and your Governor Richardsons. But I think with someone like Steven Chu, you're probably going to see him being tapped for all of his expertise on energy and renewable energy. He seems like he's done a lot of work on these topics over the last eight years. I was just doing some research on him today, found that he was - he's actually an adviser to something called the Copenhagen Climate Council, which is all about trying to get forward momentum on, you know, the international climate-change agreement next year. So, these are people - with Chu especially, I think, he's someone who's attuned to what's going on out there.

PALCA: OK. Now, do we know anything about Nancy Sutley? She hasn't played that big a role in the national scene, or perhaps I'm wrong.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: She was a surprise to me. I think we were thinking of someone else for the Council of Environmental Quality position, which - it has different levels of power depending on who the president is. So, we're going to find out, I guess, with Nancy Sutley how much of a role CEQ plays. It's an office that's right - at least in the Bush administration, it's housed right across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park there. It's currently run by Jim Connaughton, who's been in that job for eight years under President Bush.

Nancy Sutley is the deputy mayor of Los Angeles. She's had that job and sort of been the go-to environmental aide for the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. But she has experience; just to kind of tick through her resume, she worked for the California EPA before that and helped Governor Davis manage sort of the aftermath of the blackouts back in 2001. She wasn't someone that people say was responsible for the blackouts. She supposedly did a very good job in helping the state manage the response. She has a degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Her expertise also - my colleagues have been reporting at greenwire.com about her water expertise. She's dealt with the MTB cleanups that took place in, really, California - was a place in the northeastern United States as well - where the response to the additive that was put in gasoline in the '90s that leached in the ground water and caused a funny smell and caused a lot of concern for people. She was responsible for that. And her expertise on water - she was on the California State Water Resources Board - raises, you know, the prospect that I think that she's going to be focusing on water responses on the West, which is going to be a huge issue going forward with climate change.

Also, the other piece to note, she supported Hillary Clinton, and she would be one of the first openly gay members of a Cabinet - well, actually, CEQ, I'm sorry, is not a Cabinet. But she was on Clinton's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender team, so sort of an interesting coalition that Barack Obama's putting together.

PALCA: Certainly, but we have to make the point that these are - they're not - I guess, they're more than rumors, but they're not official yet. It's a funny process for - these names kind of dribble out, and then there's an official announcement and then - I don't know, it's odd. But so, we just have to make the point that these are the names that we're hearing are slated for these posts. But the president-elect hasn't made a formal statement on any of them yet, as of this moment anyway.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: That's right. (Unintelligible) needs to talk about it, though.

PALCA: Yeah, right. Well, that's right. That's what we're in the media is for, you know? We're supposed to speculate on all this stuff. What about Lisa Jackson at EPA? What kind of a pick is that?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Lisa Jackson's an interesting pick. She, I think, emerged maybe about a week or so ago. I've been out of the country for about a week, but right before I left, I did a piece. You know, we had a couple of transition aides saying she had emerged as the likely pick, and that chatter has picked up, and I think now it's expected that Barack Obama will pick - basically, she'll be the first African-American ever to run the U.S. EPA. She's 46 years old. She is from the lower Ninth Ward originally in New Orleans, which was the ward that was hit hardest by Katrina, chemical engineer by training, and she's been - she worked at the EPA for about 15 years in - on cleanup - superfund cleanup issues in the headquarters and in New York City.

Most recently, since, I think, it's 2002, she's been working for the New Jersey State Department of Environment Protection. She was a commissioner of the New Jersey DEP and then, very recently, before obviously the Obama thing picked up for her, Governor Corzine - John Corzine - there picked her as his chief of staff, and she was supposed to start the job on December 1st. In the last couple of weeks, she's been co-chairing Obama's EPA transition team, sort of getting into the weeds and all the policy that the Bush administration has been working on over the last eight years, and getting ready for the Obama team. So, her pick as EPA administrator isn't so surprising, considering she sort of was given that prominent role here in the transition.

PALCA: Mm-hmm. What are some of the other key positions that the president has to go through in terms of energy and environment? Are there many more? I guess, Interior - well, that's certainly one; maybe Agriculture. I'm not sure.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Correct. Interior, Agriculture, Transportation - I mean, I think if you look back at sort of maybe what the Democrats in Congress were trying to do with respect to climate and energy over the last three or four years, I mean, they were trying to put energy and climate change issues into a whole raft of things. I remember covering a Defense Department spending bill where they were trying to get sort of climate-change analysis done in U.S. defense, you know, planning, so I could see the Defense Department having a role, you know, in the Obama administration.

I can see it in - the State Department obviously, in terms of who's going to be negotiating the climate-change team here. And that's an undersecretary position that Obama will have to fill. For the Interior Department, there're still a couple of names and we haven't had that level of charter really narrow down, though. I think we've been saying it's kind of down to maybe one or two people, and I think the National Zoo director, John Berry, 49 years old and based in D.C., former Clinton undersecretary for the Interior Department for the last couple of years, is rumored to be the number-one Interior Department pick at this point.

PALCA: Mm-hmm. And - in any sense, I guess - as you say, you're in Poland now covering the climate talks that are going on there. Is there a sense of, you know, a positive sense that things are going to get easier to grapple with? I mean, I'm certain that that's the expectation from most people at this conference, that the Obama administration is going to be a much easier group to deal with.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Yeah, you know, in some respects, the expectations are gigantic. I mean, people here have been fighting the Bush administration for eight years on the international climate stage. So, part of it this week with covering some of the Hill - I've been covering a lot of the Capitol Hill Democratic aides who have been here talking to the international delegates and to the NGO types just to try and lower the expectations a tiny bit.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: People expect Obama to come in, in January, February, March, and you know, impose a mandatory cap on greenhouse-gas emissions in the first 100 days, and that's just not going to happen.


Mr. SAMUELSOHN: It's going to take a year or more for a...

PALCA: Darren.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: A mandatory greenhouse-gas bill. Yes.

PALCA: Darren, we've run out of time. I'm sorry. I apologize for being abrupt, but thank you for joining us.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Happy to be on.

PALCA: Darren Samuelsohn is a senior reporter for Greenwire. Stay with us. We're going on to some weighty topics.

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