Having teed up an ambitious second-term agenda on global warming policy, the chief architect of President Obama's Climate Action Plan is headed for the door -- so far without explanation.
The White House confirmed late yesterday that Obama's top climate adviser, Heather Zichal, will depart, after five White House years during which she helped shape everything from the president's first-term tailpipe emissions rules for vehicles to the administration's support for climate change legislation to its second-term pivot to regulation.
The White House has so far said nothing about a possible replacement for Zichal, and the 37-year-old official has not yet said what she plans to do next.
Zichal replaced the much higher-profile Carol Browner when she departed in 2011, after Republicans regained control of the House -- bringing an end to the administration's hopes of enacting comprehensive climate legislation.
At the time, some advocates called on Obama to appoint another high-profile climate change "czar" to replace Browner, to demonstrate the climate change remained a top-tier agenda issue. Instead, the mantle fell to then-35-year-old Zichal, a former Senate aide and Obama-Biden transition team staffer.
"In a way, I think that her tenure validates the administration's approach not to name another high-profile climate 'czar,'" said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a former Clinton administration aide.
Zichal, with her relatively low profile, "didn't attract the same political lightning" that Browner did. The latter, who had been the U.S. EPA administrator under President Clinton, was a frequent target of congressional Republicans who were concerned that Obama was handing over Cabinet-level responsibilities to an official who had not undergone Senate confirmation. Zichal, meanwhile, proved adept at overseeing the administration's transition toward executive action on climate change after it became clear that a climate change bill was not in the cards.
"Heather really helped pick up the pieces after the debacle of 2009 and 2010 on climate, and was able to help the president relaunch a very important and ambitious climate program after the  election," Bledsoe said.
This task became all the more challenging, he said, after Obama signaled in his second inaugural address and 2013 State of the Union Address that climate change would be a priority in his second term.
Zichal played a lead role in developing and promoting the Climate Action Plan, which Obama unveiled on June 25 in a high-profile speech at Georgetown University. It assigns responsibilities to agencies across the federal government -- a fact, observers say, that makes White House coordination essential. But EPA oversees the plan's marquee items, long-sought carbon dioxide rules for new and existing power plants, to be completed on an expedited schedule before Obama leaves office.
Zichal's departure comes a few weeks after the agency met its first target: a new power plant proposal completed by the president's Sept. 20 deadline, praised by environmentalists as a down payment on a cleaner power sector.
David Doniger, who works on climate and clean air issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Zichal will count the new power plant proposal among her accomplishments. "Obviously, she wanted to see [it] launched on time and properly, which they did," he said.
And it comes nine months before the agency is due to roll out a proposal for existing power plants, giving the White House ample time to fill her position.
Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said that Zichal has done a fine job managing changes in the U.S. energy portfolio and at various federal agencies.
"She played a big part in helping coordinate what has historically been an unwieldy set of agencies that have tried to -- often in competition with each other -- create energy and climate policy," he said.
But Freed noted that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has also taken a strong interest in the issue.
"There are ways to keep continuity going until a successor is brought on board," Freed predicted.
In a statement, McDonough praised Zichal and promised to do just that.
"Heather will be missed here at the White House, but our work on this important issue will go on," he said. "We will continue to make important progress in reducing carbon pollution to help keep our air and water clean and protect our kids, helping communities prepare for a changing climate and leading international efforts to address climate change."
Observers say that Zichal's position is unlikely to remain vacant for long. The Climate Action Plan is too sprawling and ambitious to succeed without a dedicated point person at the White House, and the Council on Environmental Quality, headed by Nancy Sutley, has only played a supporting role in its implementation (Greenwire, April 1).
Freed said the role Zichal's successor would play in carrying out the president's plan would depend in large part on who was chosen for the job.
"The position is as much shaped by who is in it and what the broader direction of the administration is -- that interaction -- than either one of those on its own," he said.
Bledsoe said he hoped Obama would again choose someone who would not be a political lightning rod. "If you brought in a big-named figure, you would not only cause additional political ire in some quarters but set bigger expectations for the president's climate action agenda, which is already very ambitious," he said.
Doniger said the important resume items were a knowledge of the policy "nuts and bolts" and an ability to build relationships with a variety of stakeholders.
'Informed and very direct'
Zichal's departure elicited praise on and off Capitol Hill, where she first worked in Washington.
"First and foremost, she's always informed, and very direct," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told E&E Daily yesterday. "And in a town where so often someone says 'A' when they're really trying to mean 'B,' that never happens with her."
Wyden said he expected to discuss potential successors to Zichal with administration officials in the near future but declined yesterday to speculate on any potential candidates. He said she would be hard to replace.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the energy panel's ranking member, said Zichal took her idea of an advanced energy trust fund to the president, which he then mentioned in the State of the Union Address.
"I kind of give her credit for planting the seed with him, which I think was helpful," she said.
Zichal's credits on Capitol Hill include stints working for New Jersey Reps. Rush Holt (D) and Frank Pallone (D) and for then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is now Obama's secretary of State -- and a big promoter of the president's climate agenda. According to a Glamour magazine article, she first met the future president when he was a freshman senator and he stopped her in the basement of a Senate office building to ask for directions.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said Zichal will be missed for her ability to bring together a broad group of stakeholders with different priorities, such as was the case with the vehicle fuel efficiency rules that ultimately were supported by automakers and most environmental groups.
But Sittenfeld said she is confident that the administration's climate priorities will be in good hands once Zichal is gone.
"She's leaving at a time when clearly the EPA has very strong leadership with Administrator [Gina] McCarthy, and it was great to see them taking the first step to implement the president's plan" with the recently proposed power plant rule, Sittenfeld said.
Reporter Nick Juliano contributed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.