Amid an exodus of White House environmental advisers, greens got reason to cheer late yesterday as Democratic heavy hitter John Podesta, a longtime critic of Canadian oil sands development, signed on as a White House adviser with a focus on climate change.
A former chief of staff to President Clinton and founder of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, Podesta is a crucial ally of environmentalists pushing Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. His new job on Obama's team, confirmed by a CAP colleague and first reported by The New York Times, comes nine days after an anti-KXL forum co-hosted by an arm of Podesta's think tank. The appointment inspired activists to recirculate a speech he delivered more than three years ago blasting the Canadian oil sands as "polluting, destructive, expensive and energy intensive."
"I think suggesting this process can come close to approximating being 'greened' is largely misleading, or far too optimistic, or perhaps both," Podesta said of the production of the heavy fuel that Canada hopes to pump through KXL to Gulf Coast refineries. "It stands alongside clean coal and error-free deepwater drilling as more PR than reality."
His move to the White House, which also includes work on smoothing the rocky rollout of Obama's health care reform law, heartened greens who are pushing the president to reject his State Department's still-in-flux conclusion that the controversial KXL would not significantly exacerbate continental greenhouse gas emissions.
"It is great news that there will be a strong new voice in the administration who has a solid understanding of just how damaging the Keystone XL pipeline would be to fighting climate change," Friends of the Earth senior campaigner Ross Hammond said.
Jane Kleeb, executive director of the Plains State anti-KXL group Bold Nebraska, praised Podesta's understanding of the safety risks of the pipeline as well as its potential climate impact: "Family farmers and ranchers who have serious concerns about tar sands' risks to our land, water, property rights and livelihoods now have a champion inside the White House's leadership circle."
To be sure, Podesta's ability to influence a presidential pipeline decision that remains weeks or months away -- the State Department's final environmental review of KXL is not expected until next year -- remains unclear. But the $5.4 billion project's GOP supporters also saw reason to worry about the ex-Clinton aide's ascension.
"It's a concern," Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said today. "We've got to be pushing for Keystone [XL]. If the administration can find a way to turn it down, they're going to."
Podesta is a well-known Democratic strategist and has been an Obama administration insider from the start, helming the president's transition team along with Obama's longtime adviser Valerie Jarrett and White House counselor Pete Rouse.
It's been widely reported that Rouse, Obama's chief of staff in the Senate, will soon be stepping down, but it's unclear to what extent Podesta will be taking on Rouse's duties. The White House did not respond to requests for comment about Podesta's new job or his official start date.
Prior to joining the Clinton White House in 1998, Podesta was an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He founded the lobbying firm Podesta Associates with his brother Tony -- another Democratic insider -- in 1988.
The bigger climate picture
The announcement comes amid the departure of a trio of other top White House energy officials that has raised questions about who will take the lead on Obama's second-term climate change agenda.
So far this month, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley and her deputy Gary Guzy have both announced their plans to leave the office. And Heather Zichal, a longtime Obama aide who served as the president's top energy and climate adviser, left her post last month. Neither Zichal nor Sutley has announced her next step; Guzy is joining the Washington law firm Covington & Burling LLP. Zichal's deputy Dan Utech has taken over her post.
In his new job, Podesta could have some say in picking the next CEQ chief and deputy -- both posts that require Senate confirmation. Some observers are expecting low-profile picks for those positions, as they likely face grueling confirmation battles and the office has had a lower profile since Obama created a separate White House energy and climate office.
As Clinton's chief of staff, Podesta worked closely with the Agriculture Department on a policy to limit road construction on some public lands and with CEQ and the Interior Department on the designation of national monuments, according to someone who was close to the Clinton administration.
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, praised Podesta's pick today.
"Between the chief of staff [Denis McDonough] and John Podesta, we're in good hands," Becker said. "He has an enormous amount of experience in the White House and knows how it works." And when it comes to climate change, "Podesta's presence and hand on the tiller will ensure that the administration will do the best job possible."
Reporter Nick Juliano contributed.