President-elect Joe Biden's focus on climate-related issues continued to take shape Tuesday with his choice of Jennifer Granholm, a former governor and attorney general of Michigan, to lead the Energy Department, and amid news reports that he would name former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to lead his domestic climate agenda.
The nomination of Granholm, who has called for a “low-carbon” economic recovery in response to the global pandemic and the economic damage that resulted, drew immediate praise from environmental groups that had lobbied hard against candidates with ties to the natural gas and nuclear industries.
A person close to Biden's transition team confirmed Granholm's selection Tuesday night to CQ Roll Call. The Washington Post reported McCarthy's selection, citing sources with knowledge of the decision.
If confirmed by the Senate, Granholm will assume the helm of a highly technical department that takes on a variety of scientific and data-minded divisions, including the country’s 17 national laboratories, a semi-autonomous agency responsible for nuclear weapons safety, nuclear waste cleanup, energy-efficiency research, and renewable energy development.
Granholm would be the second woman to lead the department. Hazel R. O’Leary was the seventh Energy secretary and first woman to hold the post, leading DOE from 1993 to 1997.
McCarthy, currently head of the Natural Resources Defense Council and who led the EPA during the Obama administration, would become Biden's domestic climate czar, a role that would have her coordinating the new administration's national environmental agenda. Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate on Nov. 24, a cabinet-level role with a seat on the National Security Council.
The NRDC has been a prolific litigant against the Trump administration, suing it more than 100 times over energy, environment, climate, efficiency and public lands issues.
Biden did announce Tuesday he had picked former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has described climate change as a grave threat, as his secretary of Transportation.
The rapid-fire succession of nominations underscores the high priority the new administration will assign to tackling climate change while pressing an economic recovery package focused on renewables and low-carbon transit.
The choice of Granholm likely foreshadows a sharp but not unexpected change in priorities at the department, which under Secretary Dan Brouillette and his predecessor, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, focused in large part on expanding natural gas exports, supporting research for alternative uses of coal and attempting to subsidize nuclear power and coal in the electric power markets.
With Perry in charge, the department called natural gas “freedom gas” and said it was helping spread “molecules of freedom” overseas through gas infrastructure projects.
Don’t count on such language with Granholm in charge.
“We ought to be doing everything we possibly can to keep fossil fuel energy in the ground and developing the renewable side,” Granholm said in 2016, in an address at Canisius College in New York. The climate group 350.org published a video of her remarks.
“Granholm has the vital role of turning the Department of Energy 180 degrees to confront the climate emergency head-on,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program. “She’s coming to the helm when we simply have no more time to waste to avoid climate catastrophe. Granholm must usher in the end of the fossil fuel era by ending fossil fuel subsidies.”
Environmentalists had feared Biden would pick Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and the second of two secretaries to lead the department during the Obama administration.
After the Obama administration, Moniz launched the Energy Futures Initiative, a think tank with ties to fossil fuel companies, and joined the board of the power utility Southern Co. He has also described natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to decarbonize society — language that irked many environmentalists who say the department needs to get more aggressive in its renewable energy work and move away from backing fossil fuel projects.
“Jennifer Granholm is a proven climate leader who will enter the role with a formidable task ahead,” said Steve Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a non-partisan advocacy group. “Her key challenge will be to move quickly and aggressively to harness the agency’s tremendous tools in the fight against climate change.”
Granholm, who was the Michigan attorney general from 1998 to 2002 and then a two-term governor from 2003 to 2011, has ties to the domestic automobile industry and has spoken in favor of electric vehicles.
She joined the corporate board of electric charging station startup ChargePoint in 2016. “Driving electric is a smart and sustainable choice, especially when charging stations are powered by renewable energy," she said at the time.
“While the Energy secretary is often a technocrat, I can think of at least five major political figures — including fellow Michigander and former Republican Sen. Spence Abraham who served under George Bush 43 — that occupied the post and brought the unique skills of the bully pulpit to the job,” Scott Segal, a partner at Bracewell with clients in the fossil energy industry, said in a statement. “Governor Granholm fits squarely in that tradition.”
Granholm advised the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2016 on energy issues and was said to be a potential nominee for the top job at DOE if Clinton won the White House.
Before joining the Obama administration at EPA, McCarthy, worked on environmental issues in her home state of Massachusetts.
Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.