John Podesta joins White House, Gina McCarthy exits

By Scott Waldman, Robin Bravender | 09/02/2022 01:54 PM EDT

National Climate adviser Gina McCarthy is pictured waiting for the arrival of President Joe Biden to speak to the virtual Leaders' Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, on April 23, 2021.

National Climate adviser Gina McCarthy is pictured waiting for the arrival of President Joe Biden to speak to the virtual Leaders' Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, on April 23, 2021. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

President Joe Biden is reshaping his White House energy and climate team.

Gina McCarthy will depart her White House post and John Podesta is joining Biden’s team as a senior adviser, the president announced today.

Podesta, a longtime Democratic operative who served as a senior White House climate adviser during the Obama administration, will oversee the spending from the major climate and clean energy bill that was just enacted, Biden said. McCarthy’s deputy, Ali Zaidi, will take over as national climate adviser.

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“Under Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi’s leadership, my administration has taken the most aggressive action ever, from historic legislation to bold executive actions, to confront the climate crisis head-on,” Biden said in a statement announcing the personnel moves. Biden said he’s fortunate to add Podesta to the team. “His deep roots in climate and clean energy policy and his experience at senior levels of government mean we can truly hit the ground running to take advantage of the massive clean energy opportunity in front of us.”

The departure of McCarthy — the influential former Obama-era EPA boss — comes on the heels of Democrats’ major climate policy victory. President Joe Biden last month signed a massive bill with $369 billion in clean energy and climate spending.

McCarthy will step down on Sept. 16, a few days after a celebration the White House is planning on Sept. 13 to commemorate the passage of the bill. That celebration has been delayed from its previously scheduled date on Sept. 6.

“This is an exciting moment in time,” McCarthy said during an interview with CNN last month. She’s spent 30 years “pushing for this bill,” she added. “It is second to none in terms of its breadth of change that it promises and will deliver.”

McCarthy will be replaced in the White House by Zaidi, who has served as her deputy since January 2021 and has been increasingly visible at public events lauding the climate bill’s passage. He previously served as New York’s deputy secretary of energy and environment and worked on energy and climate issues in the Obama White House.

Zaidi also worked as a lawyer in private practice, where he represented clients in the fossil fuel industry, a track record that worries some of the Biden administration’s environmental constituents (Greenwire, March 22, 2021).

In response to press reports in April about her looming departure, McCarthy tweeted that she hadn’t resigned and had “much more work to do.” But she also said in an interview on April 22 that she wouldn’t be at the White House “until the end of my days,” and suggested that she plans to stay involved in climate policy after she leaves the administration (Greenwire, April 22).

People close to McCarthy said she only intended to stay on the job for about a year. “Gina always planned to help launch the office and stay for a year and then spend more time with her kids and grandkids,” a person familiar with McCarthy’s plans told E&E News earlier this year.

Leaving with a ‘very big win’

Biden tapped McCarthy, 68, for a powerful new role in the White House that coordinated climate work across 13 federal agencies. Her job was to help ensure that all parts of the government would work toward meeting the president’s goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, while being mindful of environmental justice issues.

McCarthy, a blunt, no-nonsense climate advocate, used the experience she had gained as former President Barack Obama’s EPA chief to bring industry, activists and bureaucrats to the bargaining table on climate policy under Biden. Her office helped plan the groundwork for a national network of electric-vehicle charging stations, worked to impose fees on methane pollution, and oversaw a massive expansion of offshore wind leasing.

McCarthy rarely missed an opportunity to frame Biden’s climate vision as a transformative plan to put millions of Americans to work building a zero-carbon energy grid, and to rapidly move the country toward electric vehicles and energy-efficient homes powered by sun and wind.

The passage of the climate bill — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — secured a legacy for Biden on climate, as well as for McCarthy. Since Biden signed the law, hundreds of clean energy jobs have been announced, largely at battery factories that power the electric vehicles of the future.

Even as Biden’s climate agenda was constantly blocked or diluted in Congress, chiefly through opposition by Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), McCarthy kept rallying climate activists to push for more action.

“We want people to know that they have to be hopeful, they have to be active,” she said in an Earth Day address in April. “They have to keep pushing us in Congress. That’s how we are going to win in the United States a future that we can hand to our children and be proud of.”

From the first days of the Biden administration, McCarthy helped craft the most ambitious climate platform of any administration in U.S. history, promising to cut emissions in half by 2050. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as expected future regulations on methane and vehicle emissions, that goal is within reach.

Biden, along with senior administration officials and Democratic lawmakers, is already touring the country and touting the bill as a major campaign promise delivered. Biden, who also scored wins on gun control measures and student loan reduction in recent months, has seen his approval rate tick up to more than 40 percent after the legislation passed, a climb of almost 10 points, multiple polls have shown.

McCarthy saw the use of a reconciliation budget package, which could pass Congress with 51 votes, as a way to avoid Republican opposition to major climate legislation. That strategy hit a series of roadblocks, chiefly because all Republicans opposed it and Manchin repeatedly blocked the administration’s climate proposals.

William Reilly, who served as EPA administrator during the George H.W. Bush administration, credits Biden and McCarthy with helping to clinch the legislative deal.

“He and she deserve to be remembered in this as key figures,” Reilly said in an interview last month. “The president picked up an issue that the country was not — according to polling data — screaming for and put his best team on it led by Gina McCarthy and got a very big win.”

McCarthy also helped shape Obama’s climate agenda, first as EPA’s air chief and then as agency administrator. In the first role, she oversaw EPA’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and the agency’s first greenhouse gas rules for vehicles. As administrator, she spearheaded implementation of the Obama Climate Action Plan, including a flagship rule for lowering carbon emissions at power plants.

Insiders say McCarthy’s experience likely made her a valuable resource for the Biden EPA, especially in the early months of last year, when it was just staffing up. Despite warnings by Republicans, there’s little evidence that she took the regulatory reins from EPA Administrator Michael Regan as the agency develops rules targeting utility-sector emissions and oil and gas methane.

“I am immensely grateful for Gina’s service,” Biden said today in a statement. “Gina has been an invaluable member of my senior staff since day 1 of the Administration, and I wish her the best as she moves forward.”

Reporters Jean Chemnick and Kelsey Brugger contributed.

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