President Obama today tapped a low-profile insider with legislative and administration experience to replace climate change adviser Heather Zichal, who departs today after more than four years at the White House.
Zichal deputy Dan Utech will now be lead coordinator for President Obama's broad Climate Action Plan.
Environmentalists and industry representatives alike praised Utech, who as an aide to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y) had a hand in crafting cap-and-trade legislation that reached the Senate floor in 2008. He later guided then-Energy Secretary nominee Steven Chu through his Senate confirmation in 2009, joining Chu as a senior adviser at the Department of Energy before moving to the White House's energy and climate team in 2010.
"We've worked with him for a long time, both during his Senate days and during his days in the administration," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. "He clearly knows these issues and is committed to addressing climate change and promoting clean energy. We're looking forward to continuing to work with him."
Frank Maisano, who advises energy clients for Bracewell & Guiliani, called Utech a "straight shooter" and a "good voice for willingness to meet with industry."
"If the administrator is interested in talking to stakeholders -- which is what they say they are -- then a guy like Dan would be a good person to spearhead the effort because he has been involved with stakeholders for a long time," Maisano said. "He knows how to work with them, and he knows how to get the most out of them."
The president in June directed U.S. EPA to conduct an extensive stakeholder outreach effort before promulgating a rule for existing power plant carbon emissions, which will form the cornerstone of his second-term climate agenda.
Some observers had hoped that a higher-profile personality would take over the top White House advisory role on climate change, but Maisano said that would have caused "more angst." Utech will be an effective manager, he said, but he won't overshadow the work being done at EPA, the Energy Department and elsewhere.
"He's a guy who will make the trains run in the White House, and he's a guy who will let the agency heads speak for themselves," said Maisano, pointing to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's trip today to view a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Kemper Country, Miss. (see related story).
The administration has staked much on the readiness of CCS to help new coal-fired power plants achieve an ambitious carbon limit. EPA released a proposal in September requiring new coal-fired facilities to use CCS, and Moniz said yesterday at a forum in Washington, D.C., that the technology is up and running (ClimateWire, Nov. 8).
While working for Clinton -- who served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- Utech crafted an amendment to climate legislation sponsored by then-Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) that would have limited the bill's financial support for CCS.
The amendment was adopted, but the bill failed to attract the supermajority of votes that would have been needed to overcome filibuster -- though supporters say a majority of senators supported it.
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the Clinton amendment strengthened the bill, which remains the most comprehensive carbon cap-and-trade bill to come to the floor of the Senate.
"It made the bill fairer in that it would have established a limit on taxpayer subsidies for CCS deployment," he said.
Weiss also had praise for Utech, whom he called "cool-hand Dan."
"He is fairly unflappable, very analytical and very even-keeled," he said. "He will do a great job coordinating with the other players in the administration to move all the parts of the Climate Action Plan forward."
Besides the EPA rules, Obama's Climate Action Plan calls on DOE to support low-carbon technologies and craft efficiency standards, the Interior Department to open more land to renewable energy production and transmission, and the State Department to support greenhouse gas mitigation internationally.
Utech will have a coordinating role, helping to implement a plan he had a hand in crafting as Zichal's deputy.
What's next for Zichal?
As for Zichal, there has been little said about where she'll land after she leaves the White House, but Twitter was abuzz this morning with rumors that she will enroll in surf camp and then pursue "other projects."
In a statement thanking her for her work today, Obama said Zichal has been instrumental in helping to shape his administration's energy and climate agenda since the beginning of the first term.
"Heather has overseen some of our biggest achievements in energy and climate change, including establishing historic new fuel economy standards that save consumers money, reducing mercury pollution from power plants to keep our kids safe, supporting the growth of homegrown clean energy that creates good new jobs, and enacting my Climate Action Plan that will help us leave a safer planet for our children," he said.
David Goldston, head of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Zichal had been a strong environmental advocate in the White House, especially on climate change.
"She managed to be someone who both industry and the environmental community felt they both could deal with and they had to deal with," he said. "She was in the critical position. You were not going to get something done by going around her."
Zichal came to the White House after years on Capitol Hill, taking the place of Carol Browner in 2011 as the president's top climate adviser (E&E Daily, Oct. 8).
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. According to a Glamour magazine article, Zichal first met Obama when he was a freshman senator and he stopped her in the basement of a Senate office building to ask for directions.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the year that the cap-and-trade legislation Utech was involved in crafting reached the Senate floor. The correct year is 2008.