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The Energy 202: Biden's choice of ex-Michigan governor as energy secretary points to focus on electric cars

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

President-elect Joe Bidens choice of Jennifer Granholm to be his energy secretary is a sign the president-elects team will try to spur automakers to sell cars that need little to no gasoline.

The relationship that Granholm, the former two-term governor of Michigan, has with Detroit automakers may prove crucial to the incoming administrations effort to cut climate-warming emissions spewing from the millions of cars and trucks on American roads. 

Biden intends to nominate Granholm to run the sprawling department also responsible for overseeing the nuclear weapons arsenal and managing radioactive waste, Will Englund, Juliet Eilperin and I report.

Cleaning up the transportation sector, now the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States, will be critical to meeting Bidens lofty goal of net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. 

Biden, the son of a car salesman, pitched no- and low-emissions vehicles not only as a way to combat climate change, but also to create domestic manufacturing jobs. To preserve Michigans industrial base undercut by foreign competition, Granholm has also become a vocal proponent of building electric vehicles at home.

“She knows the automobile industry intimately,” said Dan Reicher, who served as the departments assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy under President Bill Clinton. “That will be a major focus of a department and of a country that is trying to bring down emissions.”  

The Energy Department plays a big role in supporting the auto industry.

The Transportation Department – which under Biden will be run by former South Bend. Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, our colleagues Michael Laris, Ian Duncan and Seung Min Kim also reported Tuesday – has “transportation” in its name. 

But it is the Energy Department that is the main funder of research into the battery technology responsible for a potential transition to electric vehicles. 

Having a former Michigan governor in charge of energy will raise the profile of one of its little-known office that lends to carmakers trying to make vehicle technology improvements. 

That lending program is most famous for issuing a $465 million loan to Tesla Motors in 2010 to build a manufacturing facility in Fremont, Calif. 

The electric-vehicle maker helmed by Elon Musk paid back the loan in just three years and has become one of the most valuable car companies in the world. The Energy Department also has financially backed manufacturing batteries for Nissan Leaf and improving the fuel economy of the F-150 and other Ford models.

But the departments Loan Programs Office has had little to do under President Trump. During his term, it has approved only a single loan – for a nuclear reactor project in Georgia. 

Biden has big ambitions to bring electric vehicles to American roadways.

During the campaign, Biden promised to install 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030, provide bigger tax breaks to those who purchase electric vehicles and to tighten fuel-efficiency standards on new cars and trucks. 

Though the gasoline-mileage rules are set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department, Granholm would be an experienced negotiator with Detroit automakers for the Biden administration if needed.

Near the end of her tenure as governor, in 2009, Granholm saw the state through the Great Recession, when the Obama administration bailed out U.S. auto manufacturers. In a Detroit News op-ed last month, Granholm cast herself as someone who can work with companies recover from the coronavirus pandemic while cutting emissions. 

The private sector, she wrote, "needs greater support and political will from our policymakers to help us fully realize the potential of a zero-carbon future.”

Today, electric vehicles make up less than 2 percent of new cars and SUVs sold each year domestically. But GM, Ford and other automakers have told investors they plan to build out their fleets of electric vehicles in coming years. 

Granholm’s nomination is unlikely to cause controversy among Democrats.

Environmentalists cheered the news. Jamie Henn, a co-founder of the green group and the director of Fossil Free Media, said it will be good to have a former Michigan governor be the face of the transition to cleaner cars.

“The governor has spoken really clearly about moving away from fossil fuels,” Henn said. “These roles are public messengers as much as policymakers.”

Moderate Democrats working on energy issues were also pleased with Bidens pick. “Granholm brings the economic focus of an industrial-state governor, which is exactly the economy-first frame Biden needs to sell his infrastructure and clean-energy transition packages,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide under Clinton who is now with the Progressive Policy Institute.

Scott Segal, a partner at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell who represents energy companies, said the former governor is well positioned to run DOE. Like other governors who have run the department, Granholm may be able to bring a bully pulpit to the job, Segal said. 

Read more here:

Biden to name Granholm as energy secretary (Will Englund, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni)

Power plays

In other big transition news, Biden will nominate a former EPA chief as his new White House climate czar.

As climate coordinator, Gina McCarthy will be charged with overseeing a broad interagency effort to combat climate change that will involve not just traditional players such as the EPA and the Interior and Energy departments, but also departments such as Treasury, Transportation and Agriculture, Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. The plan to pick McCarthy has not been formally announced but was confirmed by three individuals familiar with the matter.

Ali Zaidi, 33, who is New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, will also join the White House and serve as McCarthy’s deputy.

McCarthy ran the EPA under President Barack Obama and played a central role in brokering the 2015 Paris climate accord. She is currently the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times.

“McCarthy is popular among Democrats. But she has tangled repeatedly with Republicans, and her signature effort at EPA, the Clean Power Plan, was blocked in court and later reversed by Trump officials,” Eilperin and Dennis write. The Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups, which had lobbied Biden to create an “Office of Climate Mobilization” in the White House, have been supportive of McCarthy and Zaidi.

McCarthy’s will find herself working closely with Pete Buttigieg, who Biden intends to nominate as transportation secretary.

The pick will place the onetime primary rival of Biden in charge of the nation’s highway and transit systems, air traffic control, and trucking industry regulations. Biden has promised to invest heavily in transportation and other infrastructure, while cutting greenhouse gases through the promotion of electric cars and mass transit.

Biden’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 will require massive and rapid changes.

A study from energy experts at Princeton University detailed what it will take for the United States to stop contributing to climate change within 30 years. The shift will require a massive national undertaking to reshape the cars Americans drive in, the stoves they cook with and the way they heat their homes, our colleague Chris Mooney reports.

“In the next 10 years alone, the report says, we would need to add 50 million electric vehicles, quadruple the size of wind and solar in the United States, and expand the transmission infrastructure by 60 percent,” Mooney writes. “The central question behind all of this is simply what is politically feasible. If Democrats take control of the Senate, some type of green stimulus that gets some of these gears turning could pass. But even then, it is not clear how many of these pieces could feasibly be put in place.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pushing ahead with last-minute environmental rollbacks.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service established a rule that narrows the definition of habitat under the Endangered Species Act, restricting it to areas that can currently support a species, as opposed to broader habitat that the plant or animal might one day occupy, our colleague Darryl Fears reports. Environmentalists argue that the rule favors landowners and developers over critically endangered species and will disincentivize habitat restoration projects. But the Trump administration claims that it is responding to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, which held that critical habitat should be narrowly defined.
  • The Energy Department also issued two final rules that roll back efficiency standards for showers, washers and dryers, in a move that follows repeated complaints from Trump about the quality of appliances. One rule would allow a new class of quick-cycle washer and dryers to meet lower efficiency standards, while a second rule changes the definition of showerhead, potentially allowing consumers to use more water every time they take a shower. Trump has griped about energy efficient shower heads, lightbulbs and toilets, once claiming that efficiency standards forced people to flush toilets “10 times, 15 times.”
The Federal Reserve is joining an international climate network.

The central bank’s board voted unanimously to become a member of the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System, an organization that helps central banks and regulators exchange information and ideas as they seek to account for the impacts of climate change on the financial system, the New York Times reports.

The Fed has participated in the network informally for more than a year, but Democrats have been pushing for the bank to become a formal member. Some Republicans have warned against the move over concerns that it could disfavor American businesses or make it harder for oil and gas companies to gain access to credit.

A Utah mink is the first known case of a wild animal infected with the coronavirus. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the first known case of coronavirus in a free-ranging, native wild animal. The agency said a Utah mink was found with the virus as part of wildlife surveillance around infected mink farms in Utah, Michigan and Wisconsin. The news comes weeks after Oregon also confirmed a virus outbreak among farmed minks, The Post’s Natalie B. Compton reports

Extra mileage

Both firepits and heaters have environmental drawbacks.

People are rushing to buy heaters and firepits as the coronavirus pushes socializing outdoors, and it is sparking debate about whether an outdoor firepit or a propane heater is a less environmentally damaging way to stay warm in the winter months. A propane heater is likely to burn more efficiently, but a full comparison requires looking across the life cycle, including at the manufacture and transport of the heater, which will also generate greenhouse gases, our colleague Sarah Kaplan writes

“Still, it’s understandable that you want to find a way to be warm, safe and sociable this winter, and depending on where you live, a blanket might not cut it. If you decide to spring for a heater of some kind, maybe think about other ways to do something good for the planet. Measures like weatherizing your home and turning down the thermostat a few degrees can save 10 times as much carbon as your patio heater emits, and they’ll save you money, too,” Kaplan writes.