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Obama Names Energy Secretary, EPA Chief

Picks reflect the incoming administration's promised commitment to science as well as shifts in current energy and environment policies
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Courtesy of LBNL/Roy Kaltschmidt

President-elect Barack Obama today named his picks to run the nation's energy and environment policy in a move that shows a strong commitment to getting climate change under control and exploring alternative energy sources such as solar and wind.

As expected, Obama selected New Jersey's former environmental chief Lisa Jackson, 46, as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the first African-American to head the EPA. Nobel-laureate Stephen Chu, physicist and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, was chosen as energy secretary. Chu, 60, is a strong proponent of alternative fuels and halting global warming—and will also preside over the debate about whether to usher in a new generation of nuclear power plants in an effort to reduce climate change-causing carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama also named Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment, Nancy Sutley, 45, as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, an office that coordinates federal environmental actions. But, Carol Browner, who will turn 53 tomorrow and headed the EPA during the Clinton administration, will now serve as the nation's first "energy czar," or, formally, assistant to the president for energy and climate change. She will coordinate energy policy with the aid of Heather Zichal, who was the energy, environment and agriculture policy director for Obama's campaign, who was appointed deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

"The future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy," Obama said during a press conference in Chicago today announcing the picks, during which he promised that "this time must be different" in acknowledgement that previous presidents have promised similar dramatic efforts. His team is "ready to reform government and help transform our economy so that our people are more prosperous, our nation is more secure and our planet is protected."

All nominees agree that tackling climate change will be a top priority, if they are confirmed. "The ominous signs of climate change we see today are a warning of dire economic and social consequences for us all, but especially for the poor of the world," Chu said in a statement. "The path to finding solutions is to bring together the finest, most passionate minds to work on the problem in a coordinated effort, and to give these researchers the resources commensurate with the challenge."

Arguably, Obama has achieved the former with his selections but it remains to be seen how energy and environment budgets will be impacted by the ongoing financial crisis. In the meantime, his appointments have not been without some controversy, including charges from Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that Jackson, who worked in the Clinton EPA, failed to tackle New Jersey's toxic waste effectively.

Environmentalists hailed the picks as proof that the Obama administration would move forward seriously on climate change and an energy transformation. "This is a team with a keen interest in addressing climate change, and the talent and skills to get the job done," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va. "With Steven Chu, Carol Browner, Lisa Jackson and Nancy Sutley at the helm, President-elect Obama's administration will be well-equipped to tackle the challenge of building a new clean energy future that preserves the climate while revitalizing our economy."

But climate change naysayers were not relishing a return of Browner, who clashed with Republicans over the latters' attempts to dilute the Clean Water Act but also was praised for working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water and Food Quality Protection acts. Nevertheless, some Republicans remained skeptical.

"The next president faces the challenge of balancing the environment with the reality of our current economic downturn," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who argues that global warming is a hoax. "At a time when the economy is already suffering, it will be interesting to see how President Obama will reconcile what seems to be conflicting agendas."

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