White House aide Zichal’s departure leaves a ‘daunting’ role for a newcomer

Source: Evan Lehmann and Mike Soraghan, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Heather Zichal’s departure from the White House comes near the beginning of a years-long effort to shepherd complicated climate policies through a bevy of federal agencies overseen by administration newcomers, now central to the success of President Obama’s climate plan.

At 37, the native Iowan has spent more than four years in an administration that has bounced from appealing for aggressive climate policies in 2009, through a period of silence, and into today’s narrower effort to regulate greenhouse gas emission from power plants.

She was instrumental in completing the first phase of the administration’s climate rollout that featured carbon limits on power plants. An earlier departure could have threatened the timing of Obama’s Climate Action Plan announced in June, according to observers.

Yet Zichal’s move is also seen as curious. One climate advocate described it as coming after she helped plant an orchard but before the apples can be harvested. Rules limiting emissions from power plants will be Obama’s signature climate policy, but Zichal won’t be around to see them enacted.

“Now that she’s finally gotten them to do something, she’s leaving,” said one advocate who has known Zichal since the late-1990s.

At 37, Zichal has been with Obama since he proposed an all-auction carbon cap-and-trade program on the campaign trail in 2008. She served as a deputy to Obama’s first climate czar, Carol Browner, and though Zichal doesn’t share Browner’s celebrity status, she has perhaps surpassed her on results — by helping to unveil the nation’s first Climate Action Plan in June.

That success earned her praise from environmentalists and utility executives, who describe the native Iowan as a straight-talker who was cautious about not promising too much.

“Heather’s very careful in how she handles herself and what she says. I think that tends to build confidence with those who work with her,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “I’ve always gone away feeling like I knew exactly where things stood. And even though they weren’t exactly to my liking in some cases, they were still pretty transparent about that.”

A ‘daunting job’

It’s unclear where Zichal will go. Rueters reported yesterday that she is moving to a “non-government job,” but acquaintances note that she has worked either on Capitol Hill or in the White House for about 15 years. One wondered whether she will try to enrich her resume by eventually running a state agency, with perhaps an eye on becoming EPA administrator.

Whatever the cause, her departure leaves an important opening as the administration moves away from planning climate regulations and into designing them.

“I don’t expect them to miss a beat on this, assuming they get a good person to come in and he or she has the same kind of access and effectiveness that Heather had,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Basically, they need to have the confidence of the president and the ability to work with multiple agencies and players outside the administration and Capitol Hill,” he added. “It’s a daunting job description.”

Manik “Nikki” Roy, a vice president with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said Zichal earned the trust of a broad spectrum of people working on energy and climate issues by sticking with the issue through the “highs and lows” of the past four and a half years. If she had left six months ago, the climate rollout would have been damaged.

Now that the process is in place, agency heads have their “marching orders,” he said. They include newcomers to their positions, such as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“It’ll be a challenge to replace her with somebody with that combination of political awareness, substantive knowledge, history and trust,” Roy said of Zichal. “We’re in a new phase with this work. It’s now to a large extent about what the key agencies, who are also led by very able people, can deliver.”

Juggling climate change and fossil fuels

The administration reportedly sought to keep Zichal on board. But one official with the utility industry believes it didn’t try hard enough.

“Heather has been a consistent voice at the table pushing forward, and I think it’s going to really be hard for someone outside to come in there now,” the official said. “It’ll be tough to do. I think it’s a real misstep for them to let her walk out the door.”

For all of the emphasis on Zichal’s role on climate policies, she also represented the administration’s “all of the above” energy approach.

In 2012, Obama chose her to lead an administration working group on oil and gas issues. In that role, she became the White House’s chief ambassador to oil and gas companies. Her handling of that assignment earned her some praise from people in the oil and gas industry and criticism from environmentalists who follow drilling issues.

For example, environmentalists have said her numerous meetings with oil and gas delegations help explain why an Interior Department rule on hydraulic fracturing has had several industry-friendly revisions (EnergyWire, April 12).

But even before that, she was involved in EPA’s investigation of whether hydraulic fracturing contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyo. (EnergyWire, Sept. 11). Her work on the case recently prompted two House subcommittee chairmen to demand detailed records of her involvement (EnergyWire, Sept. 19). Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said they were concerned that White House involvement might have politicized the agency’s inqu