WASHINGTON — President Biden will appoint John Podesta, a veteran Washington insider who spearheaded the Obama administration’s climate strategy, to oversee the federal investment of $370 billion in clean energy under a landmark new climate law.
As a senior adviser to Mr. Biden on clean energy innovation, Mr. Podesta will shape how the government disperses billions of dollars in tax credits and incentives to industries that are developing wind and solar energy, as well as to consumers who want to install solar panels, heat and cool their homes with electric heat pumps or buy electric vehicles.
In addition to his time in the Obama administration, Mr. Podesta, 73, served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign for president in 2016. He founded the Center for American Progress, a left leaning think tank, and is now chairman of its board. From that perch, Mr. Podesta has informally been advising the Biden administration, pushing the White House to act more aggressively on climate change.
In bringing on Mr. Podesta, Mr. Biden continues to surround himself with veterans of past Democratic administrations, old hands who can step into challenging positions without on-the-job training.
“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,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Podesta in a statement.
Mr. Podesta will begin work at the White House on Tuesday as Gina McCarthy, the president’s national climate adviser, gets ready to depart on Sept. 16, administration officials said.
Ms. McCarthy, 68, who played a central role in integrating climate policy across federal agencies and increasing government support for wind and solar development, had been widely expected to step down for months. McCarthy has told associates that the travel associated with her current job was tiring and that she never intended to stay for the president’s full four-year term.
When Mr. Biden signed the climate law last month, it provided a natural pivot point for Ms. McCarthy. She will be succeeded by her deputy, Ali Zaidi.
In an interview, Mr. Podesta described his new job as “throwing the weight of federal government policy behind a cycle of investment and innovation that we haven’t seen before in the United States, and that is almost unique in the world.”
He said the opportunity “was worth coming out of retirement for.”
“The transformation of the energy economy is going to be the biggest thing economically that is happening in this country,” said Mr. Podesta, who will step down from the board of the Center for American Progress immediately. “If people are going to feel this in their daily lives, it’s going to be because they’ve got a good job, they’re paying less for energy, they’re breathing cleaner air and their children have a future that is not blighted by the threat of climate change.”
The White House pas de deux between Mr. Podesta and Ms. McCarthy comes at a critical juncture for Democrats, who hope fresh action on a number of fronts like climate change will lift their prospects in the midterm elections in November.
The passage of the climate and tax bill injected momentum into a climate agenda that had appeared to be on life support amid internal divisions among Democrats and a recent Supreme Court ruling hostile to environmental regulation.
“This was like watching Lazarus rise from the dead,” Mr. Podesta wrote in a text the day the Senate passed the bill.
Among the challenges Mr. Podesta faces is anger from some progressives over the new law because, while it promises a historic level of investment in climate action, it also provides for new fossil fuel projects.
Some of the concessions seen as necessary to win a pivotal vote from Senator Joe Manchin III, whose home state of West Virginia is rich in coal and natural gas, were new offshore oil lease sales and a promise that new wind or solar projects on federal land or waters would be linked to additional leasing for oil and gas drilling.
The International Energy Agency has said that nations must stop approving new fossil fuel projects if the world has any hope of averting the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The burning of oil, gas and coal produces carbon emissions that are dangerously heating the planet.
To some progressives, the fossil fuel provisions in the new law mark a betrayal on the part of Mr. Biden, who pledged as a candidate that he would stop new drilling projects on public lands and in federal waters.
“Prolonging the fossil fuel era perpetuates environmental racism, is wildly out of step with climate science, and hamstrings our nation’s ability to avert a climate disaster,” a coalition of more than 650 environmental groups wrote in a letter to Democratic congressional leaders this week.
Another major challenge for Mr. Podesta is the sheer scale of the money provided by the law, nearly $370 billion for energy and climate programs. Many of the agencies that will be charged with spending the money and managing programs were gutted under the Trump administration and lost hundreds of scientists and policy experts. Mr. Biden has just over two years remaining in his term to get a slow-moving federal bureaucracy in gear to ensure the sweeping green energy future promised by the law.
“If they lose a year in just getting a small handful of people hired then we will not reap the benefits of this incredible moment in time,” said Christy Goldfuss, who has been working alongside Mr. Podesta as the senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress.
“What happens over the next two years is foundational to all of our climate success,” said Ms. Goldfuss, who served in the Obama administration.
Energy analysts say the new climate law will help the United States cut emissions about 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end this decade. Reaching Mr. Biden’s goal of a 50 to 52 percent reduction will require more action, including federal regulations and potentially more aggressive state policies on adopting renewable energy.
For Mr. Podesta, who served as President Clinton’s chief of staff during impeachment proceedings and was brought in to help salvage a difficult second term for President Barack Obama, his third trip into the White House is by comparison somewhat triumphant. Mr. Podesta’s friends said he had just bought a home in San Diego where he hoped to retire before Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, called to offer the new position.
Mr. Podesta’s brother, Tony, ran a highly successful Democratic lobbying firm in Washington, which he shuttered in 2017. In the past couple of years, Tony Podesta has returned to federal lobbying, representing a handful of clients including Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecoms firm; and Quantum Materials Corp, a nanotech manufacturer; according to federal disclosure reports.
John Podesta is perhaps best known as a consummate Washington power broker. He was the opposition research director for Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee; he served on Capitol Hill as a top aide to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont; and also to Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota when he served as Democratic minority leader. Mr. Podesta also worked alongside his brother as a political consultant.
Mr. Podesta, with a sometimes mercurial temperament that colleagues said has softened over the years, is known to speak bluntly. When prospects for passing climate legislation were at their most bleak in January, Mr. Podesta offered this stark assessment: “If they can’t pull this off, then we failed; the country has failed the climate test.”
Mr. Podesta will lead a task force of cabinet secretaries and the heads of 21 federal agencies that Mr. Biden created when he took office to mobilize the government to confront climate change. Mr. Zaidi will serve as vice chairman.
As the new national climate adviser, Mr. Zaidi, 35, will oversee a separate office of technical and policy experts who will help Mr. Podesta and also guide new regulations on power plants, automobiles, oil and gas wells and other sources, administration officials said.
Ms. McCarthy, who served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, has shaped the nation’s policies to fight global warming for over a decade. She developed the country’s first regulations to cut planet-warming pollution, which were later stripped away by the Trump administration.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, she influenced Mr. Biden’s promises to do more than any leader in the nation’s history to fight climate change. And as the president’s top climate change official, she was charged with turning that ambitious agenda into reality.
“She will be viewed both domestically and internationally as someone who brought the U.S. back on climate,” Mr. Podesta said of Ms. McCarthy recently.
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