Obama’s top climate and energy adviser to leave White House

October 7, 2013
Heather Zichal, Obama's top energy and climate adviser, is leaving the administration. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Heather Zichal, Obama's top energy and climate adviser, is leaving the administration. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

The White House's senior energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal is leaving the White House, despite the president's personal entreaties to stay.

In an effort to keep Zichal on board, according to people who are familiar with the decision but asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of personnel matters, White House officials raised the possibility of her chairing the Council on Environmental Quality in the event that its current chair, Nancy Sutley, would leave.

Sutley's departure has not been announced, but these people said she would step down before the end the year.

During her five-year tenure Zichal, who coordinated the work of multiple agencies on issues ranging from air quality to global warming, played an instrumental role in pushing for stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles to limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.

In a statement, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough praised Zichal's work.

“Heather is one of the President’s most trusted policy advisors," McDonough said. "The President values her expertise and counsel and is grateful for her service... Heather will be missed here at the White House, but our work on  this important issue will go on. We will continue to make important progress in reducing carbon pollution to help keep our air and water clean and protect our kids, helping communities prepare for a changing climate and leading international efforts to address climate change.”

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy described Zichal as key in bringing different sides to the table to hammer out environmental and energy policy. “Obviously  Heather was the one person in the White House  who kept the focus on all of these issues,” she said, adding that while she was "tremendously influential," her departure will not affect how the administration's climate plan moves forward. “We’re into implementation. We’ll miss Heather being there, but it’s not going to slow us at all.”

Zichal, the president's deputy assistant for energy and climate change, served under former Environmental Protection Agency head Carol M. Browner until early 2011 and then took over the issue for the White House. A former aide to then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), she worked on Obama's 2008 campaign and has served at the White House since Obama took office in 2009.

Reuters first reported Zichal's departure Monday afternoon.

Zichal, who helped orchestrate the president's climate action plan, did not want to leave before it was launched in late June. "She was a trusted adviser to the president on an issue he clearly cares about," said an individual familiar with her decision.

Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist think tank Third Way, quipped that since "one year in any administration should be measured in dog years, Heather has spent the equivalent of 35 years working at the White House. That's a long time. At a certain time, everyone feels the need to have a change of scenery."

Freed added that given McDonough's prominent role managing the administration's climate policy, "There remains a strong voice in the White House on the issue."

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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