Peña Resigns as Energy Secretary
By Joby Warrick
Just over a year after he reluctantly accepted the job, Energy Secretary Federico Peña announced yesterday that he will resign in June to return to the private sector.
With his 9-month-old son toddling on the stage behind him, Peña said he was quitting for "personal and family reasons," effective June 30. Peña, who was transportation secretary during President Clinton's first term and a former Denver mayor, said he had no firm plans but ruled out seeking public office.
The timing of the announcement came as a surprise, although Peña had committed to only one year in office when Clinton persuaded him to take the top job at the Energy Department. Many senior officials at DOE and at the White House learned of his decision only a few hours hours before it was formally announced.
"There is never a perfect time for a decision like this, but I believe that after 5½ years as a member of the Clinton Cabinet, that the time is now," Peña told a hastily called news conference.
His replacement has not been named. Peña said Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Moler was "right up there" atop a short list of candidates, but he added, "that will be the president's decision." Moler had been widely regarded as the leading candidate for energy secretary last December when Clinton, under pressure to name a Hispanic to his second-term Cabinet, chose Peña instead.
Despite his brief tenure, Peña garnered high marks yesterday for his steady hand at DOE at a time of dramatic transition. Although new to many of the agency's technically complex issues, Peña was a forceful proponent of the administration's policies on nuclear weapons proliferation, arms testing and stewardship of the country's nuclear arsenal. White House aides also described him as the "driving force" in crafting the administration's strategy on utility restructuring and a critical player in its efforts to fight global warming.
Clinton, in a prepared statement, said: "It is a measure of my confidence in his abilities that I entrusted him to run not one, but two cabinet agencies."
But on Capitol Hill, some congressional Republicans complained that Peñ's departure would delay vital programs.
"There are a host of major issues pending . . . and the truth is that his departure may make it difficult, especially for electric rate deregulation, to proceed this year," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It will likely take time for any replacement to fully understand the administration's positions and get someone up to date on these issues."
Peña's confirmation by the Senate last March was briefly delayed because of disagreement between the White House and Republicans over the creation of a proposed temporary storage site for radioactive fuel from nuclear power plants. In his resignation statement yesterday, Peñasaid the disposal of nuclear waste would be the "biggest challenge" facing his successor.
"We have a challenge of balancing the resources that we are provided . . . [with] the legitimate demands that governors and communities around the country have for wanting their sites cleaned up as quickly as possible," he said.
Responding to repeated questions from reporters, Peña said his motive for leaving office was simply to "focus on my family and their future." His wife, Ellen, and son Ryan stood at his side as he spoke, and his two daughters colored with crayons in the front row.
Peña became visibly angry when one reporter asked if his resignation was prompted by a pending indictment.
"It is ridiculous and silly questions like that that often try to embarrass public officials that perhaps is driving people away from government," he snapped.
Peña's year at the DOE was scandal-free, and there were no serious controversies during his tenure at the Transportation Department. Peñawas criticized, however, in the wake of the fatal crash of a ValuJet passenger airplane in the Florida Everglades in 1996 for failing to adequately monitor fast-growing airlines.
Peña's resignation announcement prompted a chorus of accolades from environmentalists and trade groups, many of whom applauded him for his accomplishments in promoting energy efficiency.
"He has truly changed the landscape and will be sorely missed by businesses and environmentalists alike," said David M. Nemtzow, president of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy. Nemtzow and others credited Peñawith "shifting the debate" on climate change by promoting policies that reduce greenhouse gas pollution through improvements in clean technologies.
Peña's predecessor, Hazel R. O'Leary, reserved her highest praise for Peña's globe-trotting efforts aimed at "putting the genie back in the bottle" persuading Russia and other members of the international nuclear club to safeguard stockpiles of plutonium and other materials that could be used to make nuclear bombs.
Despite those accomplishments, O'Leary said she fully understood Peña's reasons for quitting. "It's a backbreaking job," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company