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New Leadership for Energy, Interior Departments Possible

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a likely casualty of the 2012 election | Photo: Center for American Progress/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As the confetti and burst balloons left over from Election Night get cleaned up, pundit attention is being drawn to potential changes in the Obama administration's Cabinet for the President's second term, and two seats widely expected to change occupants are those of the Secretaries of the Interior and Energy. But does this mean changes in public lands renewable energy policy will be forthcoming?

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The Department of Energy's management has, justifiably or not, been a political liability for the administration in the run-up to the election, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is on a number of shortlists of Cabinet Secretaries set to be replaced in January. The Department of Energy's support of the failed solar firm Solyndra was one of very few Republican talking points that gained any traction in the last few month. Though flaws in the Department of Energy's Stimulus-funded loan guarantee program were actually rather minor when looking at the program as a whole, Chu may well be jettisoned as a way to contain ongoing political damage.

Some have been speculating about Chu's ouster since the mid-term elections in 2010, with possible successors mentioned including Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

These days, talk of a possible successor includes Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, the nation's largest electric utility. For what it's worth, Rogers downplayed gossip of his possible appointment today. Other candidates include the CEO and Chairman of NextEra Energy, Lewis Hay III. Hay is no stranger to politics, and his company NextEra bills itself as the largest renewable energy provider in the country.

Other possibles for the DoE nod include former chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality Kathleen McGinty, though she's also a possible contender for the role of EPA chief, from which Lisa Jackson is expected to step down.

Potential successors to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been bandied about as well, the lists mainly starting with David Hayes' Salazar's number two man at Interior. Hayes is widely credited with being the architect of the Interior Department's public lands renewable energy policy, and his appointment would allow that policy to continue uninterrupted.

Hayes is an Easterner, however born in Rochester, NY, and the majority of the lands managed by Interior -- including BLM land, National Parks, and lands managed by the Bureau of reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service -- are found in the Western U.S. The Interior Department is thus traditionally headed by a Westerner. President Obama is far more tone-deaf than most in recent history to the regional concerns of western states, and so it may be that Hayes' long tenure with Interior will count for more than his place of birth.

If not, outgoing Washington Governor Chris Gregoire heads a lot of people's shortlists for Interior, as do former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and Byron Dorgan, former Senator from North Dakota.

One environmentalist dream candidate for the Interior nod, Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, is likely a long shot. Grijalva, a strong environmentalist with perhaps more expertise on public lands than anyone else in D.C., was the leading contender for Interior in the first Obama term, but was reportedly turned down in favor of Salazar when his views on environmental assessment of offshore drilling rigs proved too cautious for Obama's tastes.

Interior and Energy have collaborated over the past few years on the Administration's blueprint for solar energy development on public lands, the so-called Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS). If Hayes, main architect of the PEIS, gets the nod for Interior, support for that policy is likely to gain steam -- especially if NextEra's Lewis Hay ends up at the DOE. (NextEra is developing the Genesis and McCoy Solar Energy projects on public lands in California.)

Other potential candidates are a bit harder to read, and may well amend public lands renewable development policy to reflect the industry's increasing shift toward smaller-scale photovoltaic development. In her last term as Washington Governor, Gregoire advocated a watering down of her home state's Renewable Portfolio Standard. Freudenthal has been a reliable cheerleader for Big Wind in Wyoming, and as a Senator, Dorgan was a leading advocate of a national Renewable Energy Standard. Possible complicating factors include whether the federal wind energy production tax credit, which expires in a month and a half, is renewed by the incoming Congress. Time will tell on that one.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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