Potential Chu replacements have energy chops of their own

Source: Nick Juliano and Hannah Northey, E&E reporters • Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013

As President Obama looks to replace soon-to-depart Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he is evaluating a list of candidates who would bring an array of specific policy ideas and relevant experience to the position.

A handful of names are attracting the bulk of attention in Washington energy circles as possible Chu replacements, and all bring their own focus and set of new policy possibilities to the job.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is pitching a clean energy “Race to the Top” program that would spur states to compete for federal dollars to boost renewable energy and efficiency. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has teamed up with former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on an eagerly anticipated Bipartisan Policy Center paper outlining an array of energy recommendations. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is directing a think tank at Colorado State University. And former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) has valuable experience with nuclear waste management, which makes up a significant piece of the Department of Energy’s portfolio and earned her a shout-out in Chu’s resignation letter.

The people whose names are mentioned most often as potential Chu replacements fit the traditional mold of an Energy secretary as someone from the political realm. Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, did not fit that mold when he was tapped to run the department in 2009, although his background heavily influenced some of the policies enacted during his tenure.

In his resignation letter sent to DOE employees today (Greenwire, Feb. 1), Chu highlighted as one of his marquee accomplishments the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds high-risk research aimed at developing clean energy breakthroughs. ARPA-E was first recommended in a 2007 report from the National Research Council, featuring input from Chu.

“I was a member of that committee, but never dreamed that I would be asked to take the concept to reality,” Chu wrote.

No matter who is nominated, Obama will decide the priorities and general direction of energy policy in his second term, although the ideas a new nominee comes in with will carry some weight.

“Particularly for a president who’s in his second term … there’ll be some ability of a new secretary of Energy to affect the agenda, but a lot of what the president wants to accomplish has already been articulated,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress.

In his second inaugural address last month, Obama placed a heavy emphasis on the need to address climate change — a priority to which DOE is expected to contribute through its clean energy programs.

“In some sense, the policy will be what the policy’s going to be as dictated by the White House, but it’s certainly true that having an effective spokesperson for that policy will help,” said Salo Zelermyer, a former DOE senior counsel in the Bush administration who now works for the Washington lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

The buzz surrounding Granholm, the former Michigan governor, picked up earlier this month after she delivered a well-received presentation at a pre-inauguration event hosted by DOE.

Granholm pitched her idea for a $4.5 billion clean energy funding program modeled after the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” initiative. Granholm said states would compete for funds by implementing supportive policies such as clean energy standards, and she suggested that some of the funding could come from foundations or the private sector to avoid concerns about further stretching already tight federal budgets (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

Dorgan, the former North Dakota senator, also has found his name highly placed on lists of possible candidates. He has been actively working on energy issues with the Bipartisan Policy Center, alongside Lott and others.

The group produced a report after the elections urging Obama to create a National Energy Strategy Council that would include DOE and other federal agencies to produce a holistic plan outlining the administration’s energy goals, budget priorities and legislative agenda (Greenwire, Nov. 27, 2012).

Dorgan also is scheduled to appear at an event later this month to release a comprehensive report the BPC has generated to guide policymaking this year in a variety of areas, which are expected to include making electricity affordable, confronting environmental consequences of oil and gas drilling, and improving the electric grid.

A BPC spokeswoman, Rosemarie Calabro Tully, would not divulge any of the report’s recommendations but said they were meant to focus on areas of agreement across the political spectrum that could be acted on by Congress relatively quickly. She said Dorgan “has been, obviously, extremely instrumental” in building consensus across the various authors of the report.

Another potential contender on the short list is Ritter, an ardent supporter of renewable energy and curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the West, all while balancing calls for domestic oil and gas drilling with environmental concerns (Land Letter, Jan. 3, 2008).

Ritter signed various measures as governor from 2006 to 2010 to phase out coal-fired generation in Colorado, bolster clean energy and address climate change. He is now serving as director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

“Gov. Ritter was a national leader as governor in Colorado in championing wind and solar power — he helped create the whole idea of the new energy economy,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of the group Conservation Colorado. “He has executive experience, he brought people together around energy issues.”

Ritter could bring a bipartisan approach to DOE as he’s known for helping craft the Clean Air Clean Jobs bill, which had Democratic and Republican backing (E&ENews PM, Feb. 16, 2012).

Maysmith said Colorado was on the way to obtaining 10 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2004, but that amount doubled under Ritter’s guidance. Now, investor-owned utilities are slated to procure 30 percent of their power from renewables by 2020, he said.

“He would bring a great perspective … a fresh approach and vision,” Maysmith said.

Gregoire, who’s also been rumored as a potential Interior secretary and EPA administrator replacement, made energy issues a cornerstone of her gubernatorial tenure.

She was also a strong and early backer of Obama and endorsed the president in 2008 during the Democratic presidential primaries despite there being strong support for Hillary Rodham Clinton among female voters in the state. Washington’s two senators, Patty Murray (D) and Maria Cantwell (D), also endorsed Clinton.

Gregoire’s past indicates that as Energy secretary, her focus would be squarely on clean energy development.

“The Northwest is an incubator for all kinds of energy policy development, green energy policies, and she has a degree of expertise in these emerging energy technologies — wind and solar,” said former Washington state Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt. “Her credentials are green.”

When Gregoire left office last month, she noted the state had no wind power before she became governor in 2005 but now is No. 1 in the nation for renewable energy and among the top five energy producers from wind (Greenwire, Jan. 16).

Notably, her work cleaning up the Hanford nuclear waste site — the country’s largest — is a centerpiece of her background in dealing with DOE, Berendt said. DOE has struggled to clean up the site on schedule, and Chu in his goodbye letter thanked Gregoire for her “trust and support over the past six months.”

Berendt said Gregoire, a former state attorney general, has a strong legal background and experience bringing diverse groups together in a state with an array of public lands issues.

“She’s viewed as a remarkable leader,” he said. “I think she would serve Obama well in … those [Cabinet] positions.”