The Greening of John Podesta

By Daniel McGroarty

It's one of Washington's most cherished clichés: personnel is policy. Nowhere is that more true than in the appointment of a president's closest White House aides. Each new adviser to the throne is a Rorschach test for pressure groups to read in their own preferences dressed up as policy predictions.

Take the appointment of John Podesta -- former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, now stepping out of the think tank world to become President Barack Obama's right-, er, left-hand man -- as a case in point. Environmental activists -- especially those with little regard for the institutions of representative government, like the U.S. Congress -- are poring over past Podesta statements to claim support for whatever project-killing position they espouse.

Witness one news report:

"While he has not specifically campaigned against Keystone XL, Podesta has spoken in scathing terms of the carbon-intense oil the pipeline would transport, and he co-wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal with billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer emphasizing the U.S. would be better off producing renewable energy at home rather than importing more fossil fuels."

But click back to the Wall Street Journal piece, and you'll find this statement by coauthor Podesta:

"Under President Obama's watch, increased domestic production from developing these [U.S. oil and natural gas] reserves has already created 75,000 new gas and oil-production jobs since 2009. And we have much further to go."

And this:

"This can free us from our addiction to foreign-sourced barrels, particularly if we utilize our dramatically larger and cheaper natural gas reserves."

Of course, those dramatically larger and cheaper natural gas reserves Podesta is touting are being unlocked via the environmentalists' dreaded f-word -- "fracking" -- which tellingly does not appear in Podesta's op-ed.

Or consider the Alaskan Pebble Project, a multi-metal mine that could produce enough copper to end U.S. dependence on imports, and provide the copper that's key to green energy alternatives including wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal energy. Activist group Deep Green has staked out a position that's extreme even in comparison to their usual anti-mining stance: They're pressing the EPA to veto the project even before a mine plan has been introduced, thus short-circuiting the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process, which they otherwise revere.

So where might Podesta weigh in on this resource issue? Here the key is Podesta's Center for American Progress (CAP), which we're told: "has also questioned the wisdom of allowing mining near one of the world's biggest wild salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay; the Environmental Protection Agency will have to decide whether to block a federal permit for the project within the next couple of years."

Look closer, and while expressing deep concern about the potential effects of the Alaska mine, CAP does not join the call for the EPA to veto the project prior to the established federal review process. Deep Green may want to see the EPA grant itself extensive new veto powers over Pebble -- is there any doubt other projects will follow? -- but Podesta's think tank is sticking with the rule of law.

But nuances like these are inconvenient truths to the Deep Green crowd. Under the guise of predicting Podesta's impact on their favorite environmental issues, they're cherry-picking from his voluminous public record to pressure him in their direction.

All of which is to say that Kermit the Frog had it all wrong: It is easy being Green. Allow review of a mining project? Not in the U.S. -- even as you protest American mining projects on laptops chock-full of metals and minerals mined in miserable conditions in China and across Africa. Approve a pipeline bringing oil from Canada, no one's idea of a global environmental scofflaw? No -- even if it means more imports from Nigeria and Venezuela and a host of Middle East potentates. Being Deep Green means you can sidestep any complex shades-of-gray issue with absolutist zeal. The economy, manufacturing capacity, the modern metals-intensive weaponry necessary to safeguard our national security -- even science itself, which can often be inconclusive: None of these pesky policy areas matter when the fate of Planet Earth hangs in the balance.

Back in the real world, where every serious policy issue cuts across competing public goods -- and the environment must queue up with the economy, the manufacturing base and the material needs of the defense and high-tech sectors -- a president's key adviser will find it hard to make a quick call.

Indeed, it's already happening. Stories barely two-days old predicting Podesta would block Keystone have been replaced in the current news cycle with word that he'll "recuse" himself on the pipeline, in deference to the State Department.

Forget Kermit -- it ain't easy being John Podesta.

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

(AP Photo)

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