Meet the climate veteran in Biden’s West Wing

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 21, 2021

President Biden’s climate team consists of veterans from past battles and fresh faces in the environmental movement.

David Hayes, special assistant to the president for climate policy, brings decades of political experience to the White House, having fought polluting industries and Trump administration policies.

A two-time Interior deputy secretary, Hayes is a distinguished member of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, which is directed by Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, her deputy.

Hayes, a policy adviser for the Biden transition team, recently served as executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law. A focus of the center during the Trump administration was helping attorneys general battle federal efforts to eliminate climate regulations.

Some of the Trump administration’s rollbacks were targeted at policy that Hayes helped shape during his time as a deputy secretary of the Interior under President Obama.

Hayes knows how to use his experience as an insider to make government work, said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

“He has a depth of expertise both in the substantive law as well as how the federal government works,” Gerrard said. “He knows where the levers are, he understands how the various bureaucracies work that will allow him to be much more effective in carrying out President Biden’s mission of making climate change a central focus of every agency.”

Hayes is a veteran of multiple Democratic administrations; his stints as Interior deputy secretary came during the presidencies of Obama and Bill Clinton.

During his confirmation hearing in 2009, Hayes told lawmakers that he saw protection of public lands as one way to combat climate change, because they naturally absorb carbon dioxide.

“We need to tell this story and help Americans understand how their support for parks, wildlife habitat, wetlands and other natural landscapes is helping to address our climate change challenge by removing excess heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere,” Hayes said.

In the Obama administration, Hayes was tasked with expanding domestic energy production, which also included oil and gas.

“David’s leadership at the Department of the Interior has played an important role in my administration’s efforts to expand domestic energy production, including renewable energy as well as America’s oil and natural gas resources,” Obama said in 2013. “His expertise has helped shape our approach to conservation and our efforts to combat climate change.”

Hayes helped with Interior’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and worked on drilling reforms in its aftermath. He also oversaw siting of renewable energy projects on public lands and drew attention to the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

Hayes, who did not return a call seeking comment, has long been involved in Democratic climate policy. He oversaw the EPA transition team in 1992 for Clinton’s first term and worked on sustainability issues in Bolivia for former Vice President Al Gore. He was an energy adviser for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Biden has committed to a carbon-free electric grid by 2035, and it’s likely Hayes will play a key role in trying to reach that goal, which requires a massive build-out of clean energy, observers said.

Hayes’ appointment reflects a practical approach by the administration to ramp up clean energy, said Leah Stokes, a professor who studies climate policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“He has so much experience, working in the Department of the Interior, he’s a real expert on renewable energy, siting issues, transmission,” she said. “I think he’s going to be absolutely critical to scaling up the clean energy transition under the Biden administration.”

When Hayes left his Interior post in 2013, he received praise from friends and foes alike.

“I appreciate David’s willingness to engage on difficult issues important to Alaskans, including contentious land management policies and offshore oil and gas development,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said at the time. “We did not always see eye to eye on what was best for Alaska, but David was effective and fair, and always brought honesty and integrity to what were sometimes tough discussions.”