White House Staff shuffle follows high-profile departures

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2014

First in a series on key energy and environment staffers.
Top White House energy aides exited last year, creating high-level vacancies and uncertainty about who’s leading the Obama administration’s energy and environmental agenda in 2014.The void will be filled in part by President Obama’s new counselor John Podesta, a top Democratic strategist who came on board this month to help guide the administration through its second term. He’s expected to join Obama’s top aide Denis McDonough in steering the ship when it comes to key energy and climate policies and filling out key White House staff positions.Other White House energy aides include some lower-profile staffers who have risen in the ranks as longtime officials have departed. Dan Utech inherited the title of Obama’s top energy and climate aide in November after longtime adviser Heather Zichal jumped ship. And the fate of the White House Council on Environmental Quality is murky as Chairwoman Nancy Sutley is slated to step down in February; her deputy Gary Guzy already left at the end of 2013 for a gig at a law firm.
People who work on energy and environmental issues say there’s been some confusion about where they can turn amid all the staff shuffles in key White House posts. “There is a little bit of a holding pattern,” said a Democratic source close to the White House. But that person and others are hoping that will change once Podesta gets settled. “He will be able to walk in the door of the president’s office and say, ‘This is a priority issue.’”Here are five key White House staffers to watch on energy and environmental issues this year.

John Podesta, counselor to the president

The hiring of the former Clinton chief of staff and founder of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress was widely seen as a game changer for the Obama White House. As a member of Obama’s inner circle, Podesta will wield influence on an array of policy issues, but energy and climate change will be central to his work, according to the White House.

He’ll have the ear of McDonough — who recruited Podesta to the team — as well as Obama, for the one-year term he signed on for. Podesta is likely to have a hand in picking the new top brass at CEQ, although it remains unclear whether the White House will pick a heavy hitter to lead that office or opt for a low-key administration insider. The replacements for both Sutley and Guzy will require Senate confirmation.

Even before Podesta’s first day at the White House, environmental requests started piling up. A congressional task force quickly urged him to press for policies to slash greenhouse gas emissions from energy development on public lands. And Podesta’s appointment was hailed by opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline who hoped the longtime critic of Canadian oil sands development would nudge the president to reject the proposal. Much to their chagrin, the White House announced that Podesta wouldn’t be working on the issue.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff

Even as other key energy officials have stepped down, Obama’s top aide is viewed as a steady hand guiding policy on those issues since he took the post early last year.

McDonough has been hailed by greens, who think he’s more interested in efforts to curb climate change and pursue other environmental initiatives than some of his predecessors in the office. He was spokesman for Obama’s climate efforts during his 2008 presidential bid and helped put together the campaign’s early energy platform. He also spent a stint working with Podesta at CAP, where he advocated for the United States to step up efforts to address carbon emissions.

Like Podesta, he’s certain to be influential in guiding the president when it comes to every key environmental decision this year, from drafting a new CEQ team to a final decision on the KXL pipeline and executive actions to clamp down on carbon dioxide emissions.

Dan Utech, director for energy and climate change, Domestic Policy Council

Utech inherited the official job of Obama’s top energy and climate adviser when Zichal stepped down. In his new gig, he’ll be coordinating the climate plan that involves cracking down on power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions and advancing new low-carbon technologies.

He’s been on Obama’s energy staff since 2010, when he moved over to work as Zichal’s deputy. He previously guided former Energy Secretary Steven Chu through his confirmation, worked as his senior adviser and helped to craft a failed climate bill as an aide to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

He’s well-liked and respected by stakeholders on both sides of energy issues. He isn’t a limelight seeker, and he’s expected to work behind the scenes and maintain a lower profile than his predecessors Zichal and Carol Browner. Sources close to the White House say Utech has a good rapport with the president but doesn’t have the same close ties to him that Zichal or Browner had, in part because he joined the team later. His influence in 2014 could depend on who takes the helm at CEQ, and whether that office gains more clout in the second term.

Michael Boots, chief of staff, Council on Environmental Quality

The leadership vacuum at the top of CEQ could be filled — at least temporarily — by Boots, who’s currently third in seniority after Sutley and Guzy. He was among Sutley’s first staff hires in 2009, when she brought him on as associate director for land and water. He was elevated to chief of staff in early 2011.

It’s not certain that Boots will assume the office’s helm when Sutley steps down, and the White House hasn’t said what the order of succession will be. But Obama still hasn’t announced nominees for CEQ’s top two posts, so they are likely to need an acting replacement at least temporarily while a successor gets Senate confirmation. The CEQ chief is charged with overseeing environmental initiatives across federal agencies, but that role has become less clear since the Obama administration created the White House energy and climate “czar” post now filled by Utech.

Prior to landing at the White House, Boots was the vice president for sustainable markets at SeaWeb, an ocean advocacy group. He also worked in Washington, D.C., as the environmental and natural resources adviser to former California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and as a policy adviser to an EPA regional administrator during the Clinton administration.

Ali Zaidi, senior director for Cabinet affairs

Zaidi is an up-and-comer in the Obama White House with a background in energy policy. He’s the White House’s liaison with agencies across the government, including those that deal with energy and climate issues. He’s also a member of Utech’s Domestic Policy Council energy and climate team.

He’s steadily climbed the ranks since joining the Obama campaign in 2007. He got his first administration job at the Office of Management and Budget in 2009 before becoming special assistant to Chu in 2010. He joined the White House as a policy adviser in 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Zaidi has represented the Domestic Policy Council recently at a variety of important meetings with outside stakeholders, according to White House records. That includes one meeting last summer with EPA and industry representatives about rules to curb greenhouse gas standards from electric utilities and another in September about an EPA rule to limit the number of fish and aquatic organisms vacuumed into power plants’ cooling water intakes.