Vacancies loom at CEQ as Sutley heads for exit

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The White House’s environmental policy shop is on the verge of a leadership vacuum.Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley is stepping down in February. Her former deputy Gary Guzy has already left the building. That leaves the office with no Senate-confirmed leaders, and the White House has been mum about nominations to fill their spots, or even news about who’ll run the show in the meantime.

As one of President Obama’s top environmental advisers, the next CEQ chairman could ostensibly do everything from referee a federal decision on the hot-button Keystone XL pipeline to coordinate the administration’s high-profile plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions. But the sluggishness to name replacements underscores questions about how much the White House will be relying on the office to carry out its environmental and energy agenda in its second term.

“CEQ has been relegated to such a minor role” in the Obama White House, said George Frampton, an attorney at Covington & Burling who served as CEQ chairman during the Clinton administration. He said the delay in getting a new chief is “par for the course.”

Whether CEQ — which has about two dozen staffers — will play a big part in shaping the Obama administration’s policy depends on two factors, Frampton said. “One is, is somebody really good going to be nominated, and second, will the president and the White House senior staff be willing to give the CEQ chair a larger role?”

Obama’s new counsel, John Podesta, is expected to have a major role in picking the next CEQ chief. The former Clinton administration chief of staff and founder of the liberal nonprofit Center for American Progress joined the White House this month to work in large part on energy and climate issues.

The delay in CEQ appointments could be due in part to Podesta’s getting settled in the new gig, or due to preoccupation with other issues — like the troubled rollout of the health care law or today’s State of the Union speech — but some observers find it surprising. White House officials have known of Sutley’s departure since at least early December when the news became public.

“With the energy and environment and natural resource agenda so full going into the heart of the second term, it seems unusual that replacements for the statutorily created top two positions in the White House have not been identified,” a former George W. Bush administration official said.

It seems likely that Sutley’s chief of staff, Michael Boots, will take the reins temporarily, although the White House hasn’t confirmed that.

As with many high-level administration jobs, diversity concerns could play a role in picking Sutley’s replacement. She’s openly gay and is the second woman of 11 CEQ chiefs. Kathleen McGinty, who headed CEQ during the Clinton administration and is running to be governor of Pennsylvania this year, was the first woman to hold the post.

Previous leaders have had a mix of professional backgrounds, including corporate law, federal environmental jobs and one former governor.

James Connaughton, who served as CEQ chairman for eight years during the George W. Bush administration, was a partner in the environmental practice group at the law firm Sidley Austin before getting the White House job. Frampton had served as an assistant secretary at the Interior Department; McGinty was a legislative assistant to then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) before she got the job.

President George H.W. Bush chose U.S. EPA’s New England regional chief, Michael Deland, to head the agency; Russell Train was undersecretary at Interior before he was named the first CEQ chairman during the Nixon administration; and former Delaware Gov. Russell Peterson (R) held the job under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

For now, rumors abound about who will become the 12th person to head CEQ. Here’s a look at some of the names in the mix:

Bill Ritter, the Democratic former Colorado governor and now director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. He’s made several appearances in Washington, D.C., recently, including briefing senior administration officials this month on his center’s recommendations about how they can use executive authorities to clamp down on carbon dioxide emissions. He also testified on Capitol Hill over the legality of EPA’s regulations and climate science (Greenwire, Jan. 21). He declined to comment on whether he’d be interested in the job.

Christine Gregoire. The Democratic former Washington governor’s name has been circulated for a number of high-profile environmental jobs. She was mentioned as a possible candidate to lead Interior, EPA and the Energy Department when top slots opened up last year. But she said in an email last week that she hasn’t been contacted by the White House regarding the position.

Mindy Lubber. The president of the Boston-based nonprofit Ceres was approached by the White House and said earlier this month that she was “flattered” to be in the running for the post (Greenwire, Jan. 8). She worked for former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) during his failed 1988 presidential bid. Podesta did opposition research for the Dukakis campaign, according to The Washington Post. She also has ties to Obama’s former chief environment and energy adviser, Carol Browner. Then-EPA chief Browner appointed Lubber to lead the agency’s regional office in New England in 2000. Lubber went to at least three White House meetings last year, according to public visitor logs. That included talks with Sutley, Obama’s former energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal, and Hallie Schneir, White House associate director of public engagement.

David Hayes. The former deputy Interior chief was seen as a top contender to replace former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when Salazar departed last year, but Hayes was ultimately passed over for former REI CEO Sally Jewell. Hayes has since moved to California to teach law at Stanford University and serve as an adviser to the Hewlett Foundation, but his name has been circulated as a replacement for Sutley. Hayes has a long history with Podesta — he was deputy secretary at Interior during the Clinton administration while Podesta was in the White House. When Hayes resigned, Podesta credited him with helping “solve some of the nation’s most complicated natural-resources challenges over the past two decades.” Hayes has declined to comment about the CEQ position.

Frances Beinecke. After serving as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council since 2006, Beinecke announced recently that she’ll step down at the end of this year. She’s worked closely with Podesta on environmental initiatives over the years, and she’s well-known and respected by her colleagues in the environmental community. But even if she were in the running, she’s “not interested” in the CEQ position, according to NRDC’s federal communications director, Ed Chen.

Ian Bowles. The former Massachusetts energy and environmental secretary already served a stint at CEQ during the Clinton administration, when he was associate director for international affairs. He’s now working with several clean energy companies as an adviser or director. He declined to comment on whether he’s in the running for the CEQ job.