IN DEPTH: Obama's new green team

The US President has vowed to match words with deeds on clean energy.

He was the presidential candidate who claimed his victory in the 2008 Democratic primaries would be recognised as “the moment when the rise of our oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”.

Yet President Barack Obama did little in his first term in office to warrant such a claim. Since his re-election, he has vowed to do more to tackle climate change.

“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he told lawmakers in his State of the Union address in February. “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Such executive actions — to support wind and solar and green initiatives, and combat carbon pollution — will largely be taken by the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Defense. And in a significant change from Obama’s first four years in office, the Department of Energy (DOE) will assume a lesser role — recognition that the federal government’s massive fiscal problems force it to lessen the extent to which it can act as a venture capitalist.

At the same time, Obama will take what he can get from Congress in the run-up to the November 2014 mid-term elections, when his party hopes to regain control of the lower house. For instance, he is confident that opposition Republicans will acquiesce to a one- or two-year extension of the wind production tax credit in exchange for broader fiscal reforms.

But Obama does not intend to expend political capital in the next two years trying to persuade a hostile Congress to create a national renewable-energy standard or impose a carbon tax, despite pressure from environmental groups. Both proposals are opposed by a number of Democrats as well as most Republicans.

Obama will have a new team to push his green ambitions. Sally Jewell, a British-born engineer and chief executive of REI, a Seattle-based retailer of outdoor gear, will be Interior Secretary; Gina McCarthy, current chief of the EPA’s clean-air office, will head that agency; while Ernest Moniz — a nuclear physicist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who served in the DOE in the late 1990s — will be energy secretary.

Of the three, Jewell has perhaps raised the most expectations for progress among supporters of Obama’s clean-energy agenda. In part, this is because of her stated desire to promote larger-scale solar and wind development on public lands. The federal government owns about 2.59 million sq km of land — around 30% of US territory (including submerged areas offshore).

Since Obama took office in January 2009, the DOI has leased public lands that will support 10GW of privately owned renewables capacity. He and Jewell will need to set the next goal until 2016 and institutionalise renewable-energy development in that sphere, says Christy Goldfuss, of the Center for American Progress, a centre-left think-tank with close ties to the White House. “There is still a lot of progress that needs to be made,” she adds.

Jewell’s experience as a senior corporate executive and a banker dealing with the energy industry is also seen as a potential asset for the job. Private investors are hoping her ability to manage a large company successfully through economic ups and downs may offer ways to make the lumbering DOI bureaucracy more efficient and responsive to their needs, as she implements budget cutbacks mandated by Congress.

Some analysts caution that lack of political experience could work against Jewell, particularly if her policies are seen by fossil-fuel or other natural-resource interests as overly favourable for renewables.

McCarthy, by contrast, is politically savvy and experienced in dealing with lawmakers. She cultivates good personal relationships with her opponents and the business community. “As assistant EPA administrator, Gina has focused on practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing. She’s earned a reputation as a straight-shooter. She welcomes different points of view,” Obama says.

The president is counting on the EPA to advance his climate agenda. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act. The agency is moving to complete CO2 emissions standards for new power plants and industrial factories.

Wind and solar could be big winners if the eventual regulations survive potentially protracted court challenges. Some utilities would probably opt to build gas-fired plants or increase usage of renewable energy, rather than invest in new coal-burning facilities or expensive pollution-control equipment for older ones.

The flamboyant Moniz, with his 1970s-style mop of grey hair, was not the first choice of many in clean-energy circles. He is pro-nuclear, has ties with the oil industry and believes in greater use of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, which his critics say ignores the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing.

Still, he is very much on board with Obama’s broader push to make renewables a bigger part of the US energy mix. Obama’s proposed federal budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year (from 1 October) contains an 8% increase for the DOE, including a 40% rise in clean-tech spending and a 29% hike for projects that can make solar and wind power more affordable.

He aims to pay for the increases in part by eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industries.

Such a move stands little chance of being agreed by the House of Representatives, but Obama seems to be hoping that Republican opposition would be unpopular with the electorate and win the Democrats key votes in mid-term elections.

He also seems keen to leave a legacy as the president who put the US firmly on a clean-energy trajectory.