With a little more than two months to go before the general election and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ahead in national polls, she has already put together a transition team that serves as a guide as to who she might choose for cabinet positions and White House leadership roles should she win the presidency. Two big names in the energy arena involved in her transition—Ken Salazar and John Podesta—raise a number of questions given that they have different priorities and agendas. Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior for President Obama, is considered tight with the fossil fuel industry and has stated emphatically that he is in favor of hydraulic fracturing. Podesta, former Counselor to the President during the Obama administration, oversaw energy policy during his time working in the White House with a strong focus on climate. It’s too early to know exactly what the two hires would mean for energy and environmental policy under a Clinton administration, but they likely indicate that she would attempt to follow a middle-of-the-road path similar to what Obama sought during his time in office.
Salazar: Taking heat from both sides
Salazar’s appointment to lead the transition team has angered environmentalists because of his ties to industry, his mixed record at the Department of the Interior (DOI), and his pro-fracking stance.
Salazar’s appointment to lead the transition team has angered environmentalists because of his ties to industry, his mixed record at the Department of the Interior (DOI), and his pro-fracking stance. While at the DOI, he removed the Rocky Mountain gray wolf from the Endangered Species List and failed to nix a policy put in place by the George W. Bush administration that said greenhouse gases couldn’t be regulated under the Endangered Species Act. Salazar, who hired former industry officials at the DOI, took heat from both sides of the political spectrum for his handling of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Critics noted that his department failed to uphold the tightest safety standards for the oil industry and provided an exemption for the Deepwater Horizon from an environmental impact analysis. At the same time, the six-month drilling moratorium put in place after the spill brought ire from oil companies and trade groups.
Since leaving his position at DOI in early 2013, Salazar has further frustrated his critics on the left. In a speech at a conference in 2014, he defended fracking and offered his support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Salazar said: “We know that, from everything we’ve seen, there’s not a single case where hydraulic fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone.”
He voiced his support for Keystone for energy security reasons. “At the end of the day, we are going to be consuming that oil,” Salazar said. “So is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north, or to be bringing it from some place in the Middle East?”
His fracking comments received heavy criticism from the environmental groups. For instance, an attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) said in a statement: “His comments are a disservice to the people around the country who continue to report problems when fracking comes to town—from contaminated drinking water, to devastated property values, air pollution, noise pollution, heavy truck traffic, industrialized rural areas, and even exploding homes.”
Some environmental groups have bluntly criticized Clinton’s pick of Salazar, arguing that the choice shows she won’t be as aggressive on environmental policy as they want. His point of view is even out of step with the Democratic platform, which states: “We believe hydraulic fracturing should not take place where states and local communities oppose it. We will reduce methane emissions from all oil and gas production and transportation by at least 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 through common-sense standards for both new and existing sources and by repairing and replacing thousands of miles of leaky pipes.”
Salazar has come out against local fracking bans in his home state of Colorado, specifically one measure that may be on the ballot this year to further restrict the technology in the state. “Once again, the alarms are sounding as misguided groups are gathering signatures to place ill-conceived, vague proposals on the ballot,” he said in a statement.
Podesta: Laser focus on climate
Podesta, who is Clinton’s campaign chairman and was in charge of announcing the transition team last week, has starkly different priorities than Salazar when it comes to energy.
Podesta, who is Clinton’s campaign chairman and was in charge of announcing the transition team last week, has starkly different priorities than Salazar when it comes to energy. During his time working in the Obama administration, Podesta was seen as the main architect of climate policy. Now, he is the organizer of climate and energy agenda for Clinton as she campaigns against Republican nominee Donald Trump, who favors opening up all federal lands to drilling.
Podesta, in an interview with The Washington Post when he left Team Obama early last year, was asked in what area he had the most impact. His answer was the climate and energy space. The entire discussion with The Post reporter, in fact, focused on energy and climate, a reflection of what his main concern will be in handling a Clinton transition and if he takes a position in her administration. He articulated his belief in the urgency of the next president and Congress to formulate policies to tackle climate change. “Congress needs to engage in this to make the progress we’re going to really need to do what scientists are telling us is necessary to put us on a path to this deep, deep decarbonization that we need to have by mid-century,” he told The Post. “So I think we can get up to 2025. But after that it gets tough without any new legislation. I don’t see any prospect of that in this Congress. So it will be up to the next president and the next Congresses to tackle that problem.”
One recommendation from Podesta to address climate change would likely be a carbon tax, a policy Republicans in Congress would make dead on arrival.
One recommendation from Podesta to address climate change would likely be a carbon tax, a policy Republicans in Congress would make dead on arrival. In late July, Podesta said Clinton is open to the idea of a carbon tax, and the Democratic platform says: “Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean economy and help meet out climate goals.”
President Obama introduced a $10 per barrel fee on oil earlier this year, but the idea was immediately shunned by the Republican-controlled Congress. Since Obama’s cap-and-trade bill failed to get a vote in the Senate after passing the House in 2009, he has used executive action—such as the Clean Power Plan and regulation of methane emissions—along with international agreements such as the Paris Agreement last year, to meet environmental goals.
Little clarity so far
Picking Salazar and Podesta for high-level positions provides little clarity regarding energy and the environment since both advisors have different philosophies and it’s unclear which side would win out in determining policy.
Picking Salazar and Podesta for high-level positions provides little clarity regarding energy and the environment since both advisors have different philosophies and it’s unclear which side would win out in determining policy. It likely points to a middle-of-the-road strategy that Obama has tried to use during his time in office, which sought to strike compromises but often resulted in frustrating all sides. The Obama administration tried to carve out a middle ground with energy policy by having an “all-of-the-above” strategy, but focused on taking executive action to satisfy the environmental wing of the Democratic Party. If Clinton’s choices of Salazar and Podesta serve as a guide to how she would govern should she win in November, she will likely take a similar approach, and face the same criticisms.