Energy & Environment

10 rising stars in the energy and environment world

Greg Nash

A changing of the guard is underway in the energy and environment arena. A new generation of lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and staffers is making its presence felt, bringing novel ideas and enthusiasm to the policy battles shaping the nation.

Here are 10 names to watch.


Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)

Schatz has made it his goal to push the Republican Party on climate change.

{mosads}The Hawaii Democrat has sought to force votes in the Senate to highlight areas where Republicans are out of step with public opinion on climate issues.

He has introduced several bills related to energy, including one that would phase out tax subsidies for oil companies and another that would set a carbon fee, while embracing the role of attack dog. 

Two years ago, Schatz led Democrats in an all-night Senate session where they made the case for action on reducing carbon emissions. Last spring, he secured a floor vote on an amendment that called climate change a man-made phenomenon.

Republicans rejected those efforts as partisan, but Schatz said they served an important purpose.

“We have to make the contrast crisp,” he said. Politically, “for those members who refuse to recognize the reality of this problem, there has to be a price over time.”

— Devin Henry


Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa)

Ernst has taken a lead role in the fight against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule, which redefines the federal government’s jurisdiction over waterways. 

Ernst led the effort to overturn the rule using the Congressional Review Act. Congress passed the resolution, but President Obama vetoed it.

“The EPA’s expanded definition causes confusion and uncertainty while adding unnecessary red tape that threatens the livelihood of our rural communities in Iowa and nationwide,” Ernst said in a statement.

A federal appeals court put the water rule on hold in October while legal challenges to it progress.

Ernst, a newcomer to politics, was dubbed a rising star in the GOP after she beat Democrat Bruce Braley in one of the most closely watched Senate races of 2014. A former member of the Iowa National Guard, she is the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate, a distinction she highlighted when delivering the GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union in 2015.

The water rule isn’t Ernst’s only grievance with the president’s environmental agenda. She’s fighting a host of other rules and recently introduced a bill to prevent Obama from issuing major regulations in the last months of his presidency. 

— Timothy Cama


Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.)

West Virginians elected Mooney to Congress in 2014 at the height of the downturn in his state’s coal industry. Like other Appalachian lawmakers, he’s taken it upon himself to do something about it. 

The House in January passed legislation from Mooney that would stop a federal mining rule on stream protections that the coal industry says will eliminate jobs.

Mooney said congressional Republicans must do everything they can to stop the energy regulations emerging during Obama’s final year in office. 

“I’m just in my second year, and I’m inheriting the lame-duck part of President Obama,” Mooney said. 

“Once [the 2014 presidential election] was over, I think he’s unleashed a radical agenda. He’s unleashed his agenda all along, frankly. He’s pushing the war on coal and trying to prosecute it until the very finish, and we’re trying to doing all we can to stop him.”

— Devin Henry


Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.)

Lieu has big shoes to fill when it comes to climate change policy.

The Democrat last year won the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Waxman, a legislative giant who had sponsored the landmark cap and trade bill that passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate.

“All of us in America deal with hundreds of issues, but there’s only one issue that can kill humanity as a species if we don’t do something about it, and that’s climate change. That’s why I’m so passionate about mitigating climate change,” Lieu said. 

The first bill Lieu wrote in Congress took a page from California’s climate laws by seeking new limits on carbon emissions, increased energy production from renewable sources and energy efficiency rules. 

He also has been in the spotlight as one of the most vocal advocates of investigating ExxonMobil Corp. and other fossil fuel companies over allegations that they hid what they knew about climate change from their shareholders and the public.

— Timothy Cama


Chris Parinello, manager of federal government affairs at Valero

Parinello says the prevalence of energy in daily life is major asset when working as the liaison between fuel refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Capitol Hill.

“You see it on a daily basis, and you live it on a daily basis. When you go to a gas station, you see the price change before your very eyes,” he says. There are “very few issues like that.”

Parinello has a diverse background, having worked in health and chemical policy, as well as other energy jobs and a stint in Rep. Mike Pompeo’s (R-Kan.) office.

He said energy advocacy is changing just as fast as the industry, with grassroots organizing and public relations work increasingly as important as in-person lobbying.

“Integrating all those efforts into a coordinated campaign is going to be key going forward,” said Parinello, who also has experience in grassroots work.

His employer, Valero Energy, is pushing industry boundaries in its own right. It became the first traditional oil refiner to expand into the ethanol business and has set up wind turbines to provide sustainable power for its industrial work.

— Megan R. Wilson


Lora Snyder, campaign director for responsible fishing at Oceana

Snyder has made her presence felt on your plate.

She has been involved with projects that helped stop the sale of shark fins and uncover seafood fraud, alerting consumers to widespread misleading labeling of fish.

Now, she’s on a crusade to save threatened and endangered sea turtles from ending up, inadvertently, in commercial fishnets. Installing a small device that allows unintended sea life to escape, she says, could save tens of millions of pounds of fish and turtles.

Snyder is running a campaign where young schoolchildren write to the Obama administration asking for regulations that would require shrimping boats to include the devices in their nets.

Oceana is a global organization, so while her work is focused on what happens in U.S. waters, many of the practices she’s hoping get put into place here could be exported around the world.

Though Snyder comes from the landlocked state of Ohio, annual vacations to the beach fostered a love of the ocean.

“I feel like I can learn something new every single day,” she said.

— Megan R. Wilson


Candace Vahlsing, senior policy adviser at the White House’s Office of Energy and Climate Change

Vahlsing started her career doing big things and has never looked back.

In one of her first policy jobs, Vahlsing was tasked with helping to implement California’s landmark 2006 law slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, she has taken on an even bigger challenge: helping formulate the Obama White House’s environmental agenda, which green advocates consider one of the strongest ever from any president.

“I came here in March [2013], and in June, the president released his Climate Action Plan,” she said. “I felt very fortunate to be involved in the process developing the Climate Action Plan.”

Today, Vahlsing advises Dan Utech, Obama’s point man on energy and climate change work. She focuses on issues like energy efficiency financing, methane emissions and solar power, top issues in the president’s climate change platform. 

“I think there’s a lot more opportunities for us to still continue to make change in our time left here,” she said.

— Devin Henry


Matt Kellogg, senior policy adviser and counsel to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Kellogg returned to Capitol Hill last fall after rising through the ranks at the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), the industry group for independent oil and natural gas producers.

He is now a staffer on the GOP leadership team, working on energy policy issues for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose California district boasts one of the largest oil production rates in the United States.

He works with members and their staffs on the energy and environment-focused congressional panels to help them get their messages out. Right now, one of the most pressing items on his agenda is working on the Obama administration’s new ozone rule.

“The debate, quite frankly, is not about environmental issues versus energy and economic issues,” he said, “The debate is who is best positioned to regulate, and what data and evidence is supporting those regulations.”

It doesn’t make sense, he adds, to “force this really prescriptive program for little environmental benefit.” 

Kellogg will be on the front lines this year as Republicans fight for exemptions, delays and other changes to the ozone regulation.

— Megan R. Wilson


Catrina Rorke, director of energy policy, R Street Institute

Rorke has become a champion of a controversial idea: that taxing carbon dioxide emissions is a conservative solution to climate change.

It’s a challenging case to make, because most Republican policymakers dispute that humans significantly contribute to climate change. But Rorke sees a carbon tax as one of the few palatable options for Republicans who want action to mitigate global warming. 

“Lately, we’ve seen an increasing appetite from Republican politicians for solutions to a changing climate, to environmental issues that are affecting their communities,” Rorke said. 

“They’re not seeing excellent solutions coming out of the right. They’re seeing discouraging solutions coming out of the left, and it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for them.” 

Rorke got her start in the field as a fellow in the office of then-Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his 2010 election due in part to his endorsement of a carbon tax.

— Timothy Cama


Jackie Weidman, co-founder, Clean Energy Leadership Institute

Weidman helped launch the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, a nonprofit group that puts young professionals through three-month training courses to learn the ins and outs of low-carbon energy, energy efficiency and related fields. 

“We’re trying to paint a comprehensive picture of what the clean-energy industry looks like and what opportunities there are for young people to get involved and become leaders in the clean-energy economy,” Weidman said.

“We focus on very practical applications of clean energy in the real world.”

The group launched in Washington, D.C., more than two years ago and has put about 160 people through its courses, with a roster of about 75 experts who participate. She and her colleagues have their eyes on expansion into other major cities, including San Francisco, Boston and Denver. 

Weidman also has a day job, doing market development and research for Urban Ingenuity, a local D.C.-based company focused on providing financing for clean-energy projects.

— Timothy Cama

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