Obama alumni considered top picks for Biden Energy secretary
Several former Obama-era energy officials are seen as top contenders to lead the Energy Department in the incoming administration as President-elect Joe Biden pulls together names for his Cabinet.
Ernest Moniz, who held the role in the final years of the Obama administration, is seen as a prime contender for the post, while his former deputy, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, has also been floated.
Another name that’s been circulated for the position is Arun Majumdar, the founding director of an energy research agency during the Obama years who is now on the Biden-Harris transition team.
Regardless of who takes the helm of the agency, Biden’s energy policy is expected to have a greater focus on climate than President Trump’s.
Moniz held the Energy secretary role from 2013 to 2017 and worked to implement what he’s described as an “all of the above” energy strategy that backed both fossil fuels and renewable energy.
Moniz, a nuclear physicist, also helped broker the Iran nuclear deal. After leaving the department in 2017, he founded the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) , a nonprofit focused on energy innovation.
An EFI spokesperson declined to comment directly on whether Moniz is seeking the role, calling it a “matter for the incoming administration,” but shared a statement from Moniz and the group’s other principals Joe Hezir and Melanie Kenderdine on Biden’s electoral victory.
The three said in that statement that they “stand ready to assist the Biden Administration – and the country – in achieving a clean energy future” and added that they are “laser-focused on the net-zero emissions goal advanced by the President-elect and examining all pathways that enable progress towards successfully meeting this essential goal.”
Moniz could face opposition from progressives because he’s served as a consultant for oil and gas company BP. The company has also given money to the MIT Energy Initiative, which Moniz founded.
The former Obama Energy chief has also put forth what he called a “Green Real Deal” – an alternative to the progressive Green New Deal – in which he called for increased energy efficiency, electrification of buildings and transportation as well as using energy from solar, wind and natural gas.
Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who served as Energy secretary under former President Clinton, said that he doesn’t think working for organizations that have received money from oil companies should exclude someone from leading the federal agency.
“You’re going to eliminate a lot of good candidates if you apply that criteria,” he said.
Richardson, who is not advising the Biden transition, said he thinks either Moniz or Sherwood-Randall are the best candidates for the position.
“Moniz because of his versatility, his being a scientist, he has good political judgment, he’s held the job before, he’s a good manager; and Liz Randall because she knows Russia, she’s been deputy secretary and she’s worked with vice president Biden,” he said “I think those are the two strongest contenders and I think they would be ideal in my judgment.”
Sherwood-Randall served as the deputy Energy secretary from 2014 to 2017, where she had leadership over the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons and she’s worked to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
She’s served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations working on foreign policy and defense issues.
Sherwood-Randall declined to say if she was seeking the role, but in a statement expressed openness to working in the government.
“I’ve had the honor of working closely for and with President-elect Biden several times across my career and I know firsthand that the United States and the world will benefit tremendously from his leadership, integrity, and humanity. While I won’t comment on public speculation about the Biden-Harris Administration, I have always believed there is no higher calling than serving our country,” she said.
Sherwood-Randall has also worked with Biden when he was a senator, serving as his foreign and defense policy adviser and later advised him again when she worked on the Obama White House’s National Security Council.
Choosing Sherwood-Randall could indicate that Biden seeks to focus the agency – which has a broad portfolio that includes both domestic and foreign policy issues – on defense and diplomacy.
“One of the main things she would bring to it is this diversity of skills not just as an expert on technical energy issues but as someone who has worked with partners around the world and would bring diplomatic skills to the table,” said Phil Gordon, who worked with Sherwood-Randall when he was assistant secretary of State and she was senior director for European affairs on the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration.
Gordon added that he believes she has relevant climate change experience during her time “working with Europeans for whom this was a key issue” and in her tenure at the Energy Department.
Majumdar, another potential candidate, was the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, which researches new energy technology. He also served as acting under secretary of Energy and had leadership over the offices relating to renewable, nuclear and fossil fuel energy as well as electricity delivery.
He also served on the Energy Department team that worked on stopping the leak from the Deepwater Horizon spill. He is now the director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford and previously worked as Google’s vice president for energy.
Majumdar is currently part of the Biden-Harris transition, and is leading the team that’s in charge of reviewing operations at the Energy Department.
A Precourt Institute spokesperson declined to comment on his behalf.
Meanwhile, Biden has named climate change as one of his administration’s four top priorities and the Energy Department would have a major part to play in any climate change agenda.
John Morton, who worked on energy and climate change issues at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said that whoever is chosen to the top energy job will be doing so with climate change in mind given Biden’s focus on the issue.
“The president-elect has said clearly that he is going to be supporting and managing a transition and that transition has to be relatively quick,” said Morton, who’s now a partner at a climate change-focused advisory and investment firm called Pollination.
“Whoever is in that role is going to be managing an energy transition and also an economic transition,” he said.
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