Podesta: Climate game changer

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Environmental groups believe John Podesta will be a force for change on climate issues at the White House.

The groups argue that for most of Obama’s years in office, an administration that took power at the height of the recession has prioritized helping the economy over other goals.

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That’s created an uphill climb for advocates pushing the White House to take a tougher line on reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up polluters.

Podesta’s arrival as a White House adviser, which comes as unemployment hits a low point under Obama, is a pivotal moment, activists predict.

“The most significant thing about this partnership is that Podesta will help advocate the idea that you can have economic recovery and growth without sacrificing the environment,” said Elgie Holstein, strategic director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a former colleague of Podesta in the Clinton administration.

A veteran Washington hand recruited by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Podesta is expected to play a central role helping agencies and departments implement the president's Climate Action Plan, unveiled earlier this year. 

“He will advise on a range of issues with a particular focus on issues of energy and climate change,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

Officials and outside energy groups are particularly optimistic he’ll be able to advance the administration’s environmental agenda through administrative policy.

Podesta will help implement “executive actions where necessary when we can't get cooperation out of Congress,” Carney said.

Three key areas Podesta and the climate team will work on are Environmental Protection Agency rules on existing power plants, developing a comprehensive methane strategy and developing new fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

While Podesta's full portfolio won't be known until he arrives next year, an administration official said he'll probably spend time working with the Department of the Interior on its regulatory policies. 

That’s likely to include administration decisions about how to lease out federal lands and which energy development and mining projects to permit.

It's a role he's played before.

During the Clinton administration, Podesta helped craft the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a regulation that helped conserve national forests from human encroachment by limiting logging and road construction. 

And it involves questions that the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank he founded, has continued to monitor closely. 

Earlier this year, the CAP released an extensive report detailing the potential environmental damage that a proposed mine near Bristol Bay in Alaska would have on the environment. 

The group warned the construction could indelibly harm the fragile ecosystem that enables the region’s salmon fisheries, and called the project a litmus test for conservation efforts.

Podesta is also expected to weigh in on key vacancies, including the administration's Council of Environmental Quality, which will lose its chairwoman and deputy director in the coming weeks.

“It couldn't be better timing with the personnel transition,” Holstein said.

There are already signs senior political staff are focused on climate issues.

On Tuesday, the White House held the first meeting of the administration's Task Force on Climate Preparedness, which McDonough attended — a first for many familiar with administration meetings.

“I've never seen a White House chief of staff come into a meeting with local officials,” said Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Ind., and one of four Republicans on the president's task force. 

McDonough told Brainard that when Podesta joins next year he would lead much of the collaboration and action on climate preparedness.

Podesta himself has telegraphed his intentions in public and private conversations about the White House’s direction.

In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, he said the president’s “path to success ... is going to come through every single place that you can squeeze some authority which he has. That is where you’ve got to focus your attention and where you could spend your political capital."

There is one issue Podesta will not touch, however.

Podesta told the White House that he did not want to get involved with the administration's review of Keystone XL — the proposed TransCanada pipeline that would carry crude from oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries — due to his known opposition. 

“This is a policy process that’s been in place for several years now, and having him enter that process at the very end or near the very end doesn’t seem to be the best way to carry out that process and to move it across the finish line,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Environmental activists aren't giving up so easily, and have raised a petition calling for the White House to “free John Podesta” on Keystone XL.