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What Podesta’s WH return means for Obama’s environmental policy

John Podesta, president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, speaks at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2009. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton will be joining the White House staff as a senior counselor to President Obama. (Eric Jamison/Associated Press)

John Podesta's decision this week to join the White House staff will not only elevate the importance of climate change within the Obama administration, but it could have much broader implications for the president's environmental policies.

Podesta played a critical role in shaping Bill Clinton's environmental record while serving as White House chief of staff between 1998 and 2000, pushing for the designation of several national monuments as well as a national roadless rule that preserved tens of millions of acres of national forest. Since leaving the White House and founding the liberal think tank in Center for American Progress in 2003, Podesta has made climate change one of his top priorities for the past decade.

Brought in by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough -- a former CAP staffer -- Podesta will focus on how the administration organizes itself to deal with how to implement its agenda in the second term and its opportunities to exercise executive authority, according to an individual familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity because of its sensitive nature. He will focus particularly on climate change given the fact that it involves both of those factors, this individual added, and is a longtime focus of his.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in an interview Tuesday that he and other environmentalists are "thrilled" at Podesta's one-year appointment. "He’s well versed on a range of issues, and he shares the president’s values on issues like climate change."

In the past, Podesta has privately urged Obama and his aides to appoint a senior staffer to oversee the administration's climate efforts, and he has encouraged them to use the president's executive powers given congressional Republicans' resistance to the White House's agenda.

In many ways, Podesta has now fulfilled the environmental community repeated call: that Obama fill the vacuum left by former White House climate and energy czar Carol Browner's departure by installing an influential environmentalist in the president's inner circle. "He was the most effective chief of staff of all the Clinton years," wrote former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in an e-mail. "It is a great idea to bring him in close."

Podesta is also eager to use the executive branch's powers to promote the president's environmental agenda. In an interview this fall, Podesta told The Washington Post that Obama's "path to success" in his second term "is going to come through every single place that you can squeeze some authority which he has. That is where you’ve got to focus your attention and where you could spend your political capital.”

For that very reason, energy industry officials such as Tesoro Corp.'s vice president and counsel Stephen H. Brown are worried about Podesta's move to the West Wing.

"The 'climate creep' agenda of this administration -- the agenda of implementing climate change initiatives via regulation and executive order that which cannot be successfully legislated -- continues unabated and with an eye toward a calendar that, thankfully, runs out in January 2017," Brown wrote in an e-mail.

And while climate policy is Podesta's highest profile assignment, he could influence the president's decisions on issues ranging from whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to whether to block a massive copper and gold mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

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. Steyer has given millions to CAP during Podesta's tenure; the think tank just co-sponsored a conference this month at Georgetown University  with Steyer's NextGen Climate Action, entitled "“Can Keystone Pass the President’s Climate Test?”

"Our economy can go from being weighed down by oil imports to soaring ahead, powered increasingly by domestically produced clean energy, and energy services and technology," the two men wrote in the Jan. 24, 2012 piece.

Podesta was even more harsh about Canada's oil sands in a June 23, 2010 speech. Speaking at a Canadian-sponsored conference on "Greening the Oil Sands":

"I’m skeptical about a 'green' vision for tar sands, and I want to level with you about how I see the future of energy policy playing out," he told the audience. "How we choose to produce and consume energy today will change the world for either good or for ill for coming generations. ... Failing to curb our dependence on fossil fuels will create a world dramatically different than the one we’re currently accustomed to; one in which sea level rise, extreme weather, and reduced resource supplies will not only cause irreparable harm to ecosystems around the globe, but also tremendous human suffering and conflict. We need to do our best to absorb the weight of that fact and incorporate it into our decisions."

CAP 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.

One former White House officials warned that environmentalists shouldn't forget the fact that during Podesta's time as chief of staff, the Clinton administration made plenty of compromises with Republicans. "They were very adept at making deals," the official said.

But David Hayes, who served as Interior's deputy secretary under both Clinton and Obama, wrote in an e-mail that Podesta's record in the late 1990s suggests he will leave a lasting environmental mark on a Democratic administration once more.

"John Podesta's return to the White House is an early Christmas present for everyone who cares about the environment," he wrote. "John has a clear-headed commitment to environmental values, and he sticks to them, through thick and thin, as he proved time and again as chief of staff to President Clinton."