Lots of talk about Gregoire as rumor mill churns on administrator opening

Source: Jeremy P. Jacobs and Jean Chemnick, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Put the name of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire on top of the list of potential nominees to run U.S. EPA in President Obama’s second term.

That’s the talk these days among EPA watchers in Washington, D.C.

Gregoire, a Democrat whose second term ends this month, had been rumored to be under consideration for several administration positions, including the Department of Energy, but until Friday wasn’t believed to be in the running for EPA chief.

That changed when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Gregoire is a front-runner for the post. A source close to EPA has since told Greenwire that Gregoire is believed to be on the White House’s list.

Tapping Gregoire, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, would instantly boost the profile of the EPA post, several observers said, and bring a seasoned politician into what’s likely to be a bruising confirmation fight. Such a scenario had more than one observer drawing similarities to another Christine who led the agency, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who was President George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator.

Gregoire is getting praised by several prominent EPA watchers.

“There is no question that she is well-qualified and would do an excellent job,” said Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Since Administrator Lisa Jackson announced last month that she’ll leave EPA after the State of the Union address, it remains an open question whether Obama will seek to nominate a new administrator anytime soon. The president has said Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe will take the reins in an acting role — a position he can keep for the better part of a year before an official nomination. Perciasepe is also seen as a leading contender to permanently fill the post.

Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren, moreover, formally denied any knowledge of discussions about EPA between her boss and the White House.

“I’m not aware of any conversations,” Shagren said. “There has been no job offered — either formally or informally.”

Former EPA Administrator William Reilly cautioned against reading too much into the nomination rumors.

“The way this works is that there are great mentioners,” he said. “And some are just advocates. And I’ve done that myself.”

Still, Gregoire has long been a major supporter — and fundraiser — for Obama. And Reilly said Gregoire’s credentials have only grown since he tried to hire her as a regional administrator in 1989, when he headed the agency under President George H.W. Bush and she headed Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Not only would Gregoire have ample experience with EPA issues, he said, “she would be a very reassuring presence to the states.”

“There is always a federal-state tension at EPA, because so much of what EPA is authorized to do really requires states to take the lead, and then the tension that results when EPA is not satisfied with what they do or wants to go further is endemic.”

William Ruckelshaus, who was EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon and again under President Reagan, echoed Reilly’s praise. Ruckelshaus, who lives in Seattle, has gotten to know Gregoire as she has climbed the ranks of Washington state government.

“She realizes the potential impact of regulation on economic growth,” he said. “She realizes they’re not independent of each other: that it isn’t the environment versus the economy, that you have to think about them both as part of the same equation.”

Ruckelshaus added that he doesn’t know whether Gregoire is being discussed, but he said: “I think she’d be a very good choice. I hope the president chooses her.”

Enviro record

Gregoire would bring a list of environmental accomplishments to the job, including her experience heading Washington’s Department of Ecology and serving at the state’s attorney general.

During her two terms as governor, she has been credited with helping restore Puget Sound and has made Washington a leader in addressing climate change, including traveling to the United Nations 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Her administration has enacted greenhouse gas emission limits for new power plants — a task EPA is set to finalize this year — and worked to close Washington’s only coal-fired power plant.

“I think that all signs are that she would be a very strong EPA administrator,” said Ross MacFarlane of the Seattle-based environmental group Climate Solutions. “She has the legal background, and is somebody who is going to be very careful in following the law and making sure that the policies are based in that.”

Further, Gregoire was a founding member of the Western Climate Initiative, a coalition of Western states and Canadian provinces that implemented a trading program to reduce carbon emissions.

That experience could prove invaluable as EPA tackles similar issues in Obama’s second term, said Scott Segal, who represents industry interests at Bracewell & Giuliani’s Policy Resolution Group.

“If this issue is mishandled,” he said, “it will have profound impacts for job creation, economic recovery, international competitiveness, and power and fuel prices for consumers and businesses.”

Gregoire hasn’t been entirely successful. She failed, for example, to link Washington to California’s landmark cap-and-trade program, known as A.B. 32, which recently went into effect.

Politician or technocrat?

Gregoire’s political clout, several observers noted, would add a new dynamic to the EPA post and to the nomination process.

Along with Perciasepe, Obama is believed to be considering a list of contenders largely composed of career technocrats with extensive experience in environmental regulation. They include current EPA air chief Gina McCarthy; Kathleen McGinty, who led President Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality and was Pennsylvania’s environment secretary; California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols; and Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (E&E Daily, Dec. 28, 2012).

Weiss, of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, noted that Democratic presidents have previously picked exclusively from the ranks of state environmental agencies to lead EPA, a qualification that Gregoire would fulfill. But Democrats have not chosen political leaders, leaving that to Republicans who sought elected officials like Whitman and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who led EPA after Whitman.

“This would be a change for Democrats,” Weiss said.

Gregoire’s political skills may also come in handy if EPA faces the same onslaught in Obama’s second term as it did in the first.

On the other hand, some observers noted that Obama may not need a high-profile pick and may be better served by someone like Perciasepe, who has previously led EPA’s water and air offices and has intricate knowledge of how the agency works — particularly facing tight budget constraints.

Other posts

Gregoire has also been mentioned as a possible Obama pick for posts including trade representative and the departments of the Interior, Transportation, Commerce and Energy.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has not formally announced his plans, but his departure is seen as a foregone conclusion among energy lobbyists and policy experts close to the administration. Sources also expect Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman to step down soon.

Several names are being mentioned as possible Chu replacements, in addition to Gregoire. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is seen as a leading candidate who would be among the likeliest to win confirmation from his past colleagues.

Another name said to be on administration short lists is Dan Reicher, who was an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration before working on energy and climate issues for Google and now directs an energy and finance program at Stanford University. Reicher served as an Obama surrogate during last year’s campaign.

Other names circulating as possible Chu replacements include former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter; John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress; and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who also was seen as a candidate for the top Pentagon spot for which Obama yesterday nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Energy reporters and policy watchers were gripped Friday morning by a quickly spreading rumor that Chu would announce his resignation later that day. A DOE spokeswoman said in an email Friday that the rumor was “not true” but didn’t respond when asked about Chu’s longer-term prospects. A follow-up request for comment this morning was not immediately answered.