Heather Zichal
Heather Zichal.

Barack Obama’s campaign has a deep bench when it comes to climate and energy policy, one that includes scientists, policy wonks, and economists. On July 20, Obama added Heather Zichal to the team as policy director for energy, environment, and agriculture.

Before coming to the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters, Zichal served as the legislative director for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), running both his domestic and foreign policy. In 2004, she was responsible for energy and environmental policy in Kerry’s presidential campaign. From 2001 to 2002, she was the legislative director for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). Zichal, 32, is an Iowa native and a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Even in the relatively short time she’s been working in politics, she’s observed a major shift in the way climate change is being approached.  “I can’t imagine that in 2004 we would have ever talked about cap-and-trade in a speech,” Zichal told Grist. “[Now] you can talk about needing to establish a cap-and-trade program to bring greenhouse-gas emissions down, and people will actually understand what you’re talking about and not think that you’re totally off the reservation.”

Grist caught up with Zichal to talk about “clean coal,” offshore drilling, and how a President Obama would craft a bipartisan plan to address climate change.

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Grist: Do you see Sen. Obama looking to address both climate and energy policy early on in his presidency? Or would climate by necessity take a back seat to energy, which has been a bigger issue in the campaign?

Zichal: I think from Sen. Obama’s perspective, climate and energy policy go hand-in-hand. His goal would be to try and move climate legislation in tandem with energy legislation, and I think the good news about that is moving them together makes more policy sense, but also you might be able to bring more votes and additional support along if you can lay out this comprehensive plan that’s good for consumers, creates jobs, and invests in a diverse energy future.

Grist: A common objection to putting a cap on carbon in the U.S. is that our caps don’t mean anything if India and China aren’t involved, and it would put us at an economic disadvantage. What’s Sen. Obama’s response to that?

Zichal: From Sen. Obama’s point of view, we start with the basic premise that, first of all, a cap-and-trade program makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective, but also from an energy policy perspective. The point that Sen. Obama has made in the past when talking about this question is that climate change is a global problem and we all have to commit to trying to do this together. Rather than taking the backseat [as] we’ve done under the Bush administration, by taking a leadership role, charging forward, and making an aggressive commitment in this area, we will be able to provide the leadership and reengage in the international community and show this commitment, and have a better chance of bringing other countries on board with a domestic cap-and-trade program.

Grist: There’s some debate even among congressional Democrats over whether we should prioritize putting in place a cap or prioritize incentives. Obama has said he wants to cap emissions and gradually lower them 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Is he set on the target-based approach, or could we see a different initial way of tackling emissions in an Obama administration?

Zichal: In his plan, he calls for an aggressive 80 percent emissions reduction. We’ve seen what the science tells us we need to do in terms of emissions reductions, so what’s important is that we put together a plan that helps us get to that goal. I think he’ll definitely want to work with Congress to do that in a way that makes sense. I don’t think he’s 100 percent locked in to anything, but it’s going to have to achieve those emission-reduction levels that the science tells us we need to, and it’s going to have to do that in a way that allows us to help consumers with rising energy costs and provide the resources to make the investments that we need to transition to a new clean energy future.

Grist:  Sen. Obama is big on bipartisan compromise and building consensus. As you mentioned, the science says we need dramatic cuts — 80 percent by 2050 — and the political consensus is nowhere near that. How would an Obama administration move that political consensus?

Zichal: [On] the [Lieberman-Warner] legislation that moved in the Senate, we did have a handful of Republicans come out, as well as energy companies, and say this makes a lot of sense from a policy perspective. We made some really good progress this year. We moved forward in bringing new people to the table. From Sen. Obama’s perspective, he’s in these battleground states, he’s hearing day in and day out of the concerns from voters like, “Look, we can’t go duck hunting because the duck migrations have changed,” or “We have more forest fires than we’ve ever had before.” The concerns are front and center and their emotions are being heard by their elected officials.

Sen. Obama has an ability to reach across the aisle and has done so many times on energy policy issues, from CAFE to biodiesel, and continuing in that spirit of bipartisanship he’s got a great opportunity to work with his colleagues to try and identify a path forward. At the same time, you have this growing pressure from the public to find solutions and address the problem, and I think that’s only going to help.

Grist: You mention that the public is increasingly backing climate initiatives, but it also seems like the public is now more in favor of drilling too, because it’s been pushed so hard. Is there a concern that Obama saying, “Okay, we can include some drilling in an energy package” feeds this idea that the solution to energy problems is simply more oil?

Zichal: It would be very easy to fall into that trap. Based on a lot of the more recent polling that we’ve seen, what Americans are saying is, “We want to see more of everything — we want more drilling, we want more development of biofuels, we want more investments in efficiency.” And from a public-policy perspective and from an energy-policy perspective, diversifying our energy supply is exactly what Sen. Obama recognizes we need to do and has made his core principle for his comprehensive energy plan.

Grist: Coal is an area where environmentalists have taken issue with Obama in the past. It seems like he’s moderated some of his support for the industry since he was a candidate in Illinois. Is it fair to say that Sen. Obama’s views on coal have shifted over the years?

Zichal: If you look at Sen. Obama’s record, he’s been a leader in the fight to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He’s strongly supported the most aggressive cap-and-trade approach under the Sanders-Boxer bill. At the same time, he comes from a coal-producing state and he supports research on all potential energy sources. When it comes to coal-to-liquid, what he said clearly is, “Look, if we can find a way to do this under a low-carbon fuel standard, that’s absolutely something that we should pursue.”

Grist: Sen. Obama talks a lot about “clean coal.” He even mentioned it in his convention speech in Denver. Most experts say it’s still about 10 years out, which would be well after the first or even second term of an Obama administration. Is promising “clean coal” to coal states, the coal industry, and environmentalists disingenuous?

Zichal: From a practical perspective, we have a whole lot of coal-fired power plants in this country and we have growing demand [for energy]. I think Sen. Obama recognizes that we have a lot of work to do to figure out that technology, to understand our capacity for carbon capture and sequestration, and iron out a whole host of questions that come along with that.  The FutureGen project was abandoned by the Bush administration.  We can’t just continue to duck when it comes to investing in clean coal, which is why [Sen. Obama's] plan calls for five carbon-capture-and-sequestration pilot projects., If we take what the science says about climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions seriously, which Sen. Obama does, we have a lot of work to do to figure out clean coal, and that’s going to be a priority in his administration.

Grist: Another Obama adviser has noted that a cap-and-trade policy like the one that Sen. Obama has outlined would effectively serve as a moratorium on coal plants that don’t have carbon capture and sequestration in place, and that if Sen. Obama is unable to get a price on carbon, he might be willing to take on other measures like putting in place an actual moratorium. What’s the official stance on that?

Zichal: From [Sen. Obama's] perspective, again, it goes back to the fact that we need to address growing demand, and we need to do that in a way that makes sense both environmentally and for consumers. We recognize that more research and development needs to be done to commercialize clean-coal technology, and he’s dedicated to doing that. Going forward, for new coal-fired power plants, he has made it very clear that he wants those plants to have retrofit capabilities, and he’s very practical about what we need to do going forward.

Grist: You worked on energy issues in Sen. Kerry’s presidential campaign four years ago. What’s different now?

Zichal: In 2004 it was all about saying, “We hate Middle East oil.” Energy costs were up, but nowhere near front and center in the mind of every American voter, which is where they are today. So [now] we spend a lot more time focusing on our energy message and laying out all the details and comprehensive pieces of a plan and how it fits together.

The other thing I find incredibly interesting is we barely talked about climate change at all in 2004. It was kind of seen as a little bit of an “out there” concept. Within the last four years, a lot of the great work from the environmental community, a Democratic majority, and being able to hold hearings and look at these issues more directly in Congress has helped. Climate change is something that Obama hears about on the campaign trail on a regular basis, and that was just not at all the case in 2004.

I can’t imagine that in 2004 we would have ever talked about cap-and-trade in a speech. I’m not convinced that the vast majority of Americans understood exactly what cap-and-trade is. But [now] you can talk about needing to establish a cap-and-trade program to bring greenhouse-gas emissions down, and people will actually understand what you’re talking about and not think that you’re totally off the reservation.