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WSJ: Industry looks for change among Obama energy officials

11.08.2012  |  HP News Services

Keywords: [Barack Obama] [election] [Mitt Romney] [EPA]

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Energy-industry officials and environmental groups are watching for change at the top in President Barack Obama's second term, with Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu seen as possible candidates to step down.

Any new faces could have a big impact on some of the most important issues affecting the US economy, including the rapid growth of oil and gas production backed by new drilling technologies and the decline of coal.

Mr. Salazar's spokesman said the secretary remains "focused on the job." The White House declined to comment on who might leave the Cabinet or when, and representatives of the EPA and the Energy Department didn't return messages seeking comment.

Washington lobbyists and Capitol Hill staff are already circulating lists of possible candidates for the posts. The EPA job is particularly critical, whether Ms. Jackson holds it, because the agency must make decisions about regulating greenhouse gases in the coming year that could effectively block new coal-fired power plants.

Presidents typically shuffle their cabinets going into a second term. The grueling workload and relatively low government salaries often prompt some leaders to step aside.

While there is no particular impetus for Ms. Jackson or Messrs. Salazar and Chu to leave right away, all three have shouldered considerable criticism from corporate executives, industry lobbyists and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Salazar, a former US senator from Colorado, was widely criticized for issuing a temporary drilling ban after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, absorbed flak for supporting loan guarantees for bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra.

Perhaps the most popular target for Republicans is Ms. Jackson. A former New Jersey environmental official, Ms. Jackson has been accused by Republicans of expanding her agency's authority and tackling climate change despite disagreement on the issue on Capitol Hill.

"Some people just get worn out," said Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official and a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani. "There are a number of perks that come with the job, but it is a lot of hard work."

Mr. Obama's allies in the environmental community were pleased with the selections of Mr. Chu and Ms. Jackson after his election in 2008. If they step down, the president's picks for successors could be an indication of whether he wishes to lean more in the direction of industry or environmental groups interested in global warming.

In a second term, "President Obama has an historic opportunity to establish a legacy as the person who saved the planet from climate change," said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The timing of any future departures is unclear. The White House is likely to consider is the pace at which other cabinet members leave, careful not to allow a mass exodus within the first months of a second term.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has already said he plans to leave his post, although he says he will remain until a successor is confirmed.

It could also be difficult for Mr. Obama to steer new candidates through the Senate's confirmation process. Hearings on a new EPA chief could evolve into a referendum on climate change, a polarizing topic among members of Congress.

Meanwhile, some of the earliest departures within EPA or the Interior and Energy Departments could come from second-tier political appointees or staff.

Dow Jones Newswires

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Rick Gutheil

If Energy Secretary Steven Chu does resign, his position should be filled with Representative Paul Tonko from New York. He’s a faithful Democrat, loyal to the Obama agenda, and a member of the Natural Resources Committee, where he serves on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. Tonko earned an engineering degree from Union College and served as chairman of the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Energy prior to leaving the Assembly to become the president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). While at NYSERDA, he worked to advance an aggressive green agenda for businesses and residents throughout New York State. He’s probably the best person to head the Energy Department.

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