Stuff I learned at DOE, Part 1: SOS trumps NSA (Hillary Clinton trumps Gen. Jones)

Some enviros are annoyed that PEBO chose a national security adviser (NSA), retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who has emphasized energy security concerns over global warming — see, for instance, this lame transition report on energy Jones just oversaw for the US Chamber of Commerce.

The Politico actually just interviewed me on this very subject, and I told them I wouldn’t lose a minute’s sleep over it [and you all thought they wouldn’t talk to me after this, but then again they mostly ignored what I said in their story, as evidenced by the headline “Jones gives hope to energy companies.”]

Let’s be clear here: Of the national security team, the NSA is all but irrelevant on the key issues of climate and domestic energy policy. Only the Secretary of State (SOS) really matters — and here PEBO chose a grand slam home run for climate science advocates (CSAs).

[Note: With a new green and progressive administration starting to take the reins of power, I thought I’d begin (another) series, this one to share my experience in the executive branch. I spent five years at the Department of Energy in the 1990s — two years as special assistant for policy and planning to the deputy secretary and three years as principal deputy assistant secretary (PDAS) in the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE) including six months as acting assistant secretary. BTW, the feds love acronyms.]

Back to the NSA and energy/climate policy. The coverage on this issue has not been informative. E&E News begins its irrelevantly headlined story, “Obama’s security adviser seeks offshore drilling, shale production” (subs. req’d):

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for national security adviser has recently called for domestic oil shale production and permanently ending limits on offshore oil and gas drilling — views starkly at odds with those of environmentalists, who are hoping Obama will champion their agenda.

So what? You might as well do a story on Gen. Jones’ views on universal health care. The NSA’s views on domestic oil shell production and offshore drilling are utterly beside the point.

I cannot imagine that anybody in the White House cares what Jones thinks about issues that are not in his portfolio, nor can I imagine that Jones will waste one iota of political capital pushing issues that are not only not in his portfolio but that are explicitly in other people’s portfolio and that PEBO has already publicly stated his policy on.

It simply is not the way the executive branch works. Indeed, the National Security Council didn’t insert themselves in these issues when I was in government — and now it seems likely that Obama will have some sort of energy czar operating out of the White House who will explicitly oversee interagency disputes on this subject.

If you want a good summary of Jones’ flawed, security-centric energy views, read Desmogblog’s “Obama’s Security Chief From Big Oil?” but ignore the hyperbole:

If he is named National Security Adviser to Obama, Jones will be in a powerful position to make these environmental roll-backs happen.

As NSA, I’m not sure Jones will even bother sending a senior representative to most of the meetings that actually discuss and set domestic energy policy or even international climate policy.

Similarly Keith Johnson of the WSJ could not be more wrong when he wrote today:

By tapping General James Jones as his national security adviser, President-elect Barack Obama is indicating that the great energy debate will take place at the epicenter of U.S. national security–and that the outcome of that debate will look more like “all of the above” and less like a “green revolution.”

The NSA plays no role whatsoever in the “great energy debate” that will set domestic energy policy. To repeat, I doubt Jones will even bother sending a senior representative to most of the relevant meetings.

Seriously, the Commerce Secretary provides far more input than the NSA into domestic energy and climate policy, since he is supposed to represent U.S. business interests — and here again Obama hit a grand slam home run by picking Bill Richardson, who will represent the interests of the new green industries he has championed for so long, and not just traditional Chamber of Commerce types who oppose serious domestic action and who hire people like Jones to write lame old-school energy policies.

When I was at DOE, it was the State Department that convened the meetings that thrashed out the domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction target we were going to propose at Kyoto. I don’t remember the National Security Council being significantly involved. At the one sort of Cabinet-level meeting I attended on the subject, again I don’t remember seeing or hearing from the NSC.

The NSC would play a role in international energy security crises, say a terrorist incident in Saudi Arabia. And here it is probably better than not to have somebody like Gen. Jones, who, besides his many obvious qualifications for the job of NSA, is quite knowledgeable on energy matters. But again, in my five years at DOE, I can’t remember the NSC once weighing in the formulation of domestic energy policy. The National Economic Council did weigh in, of course, but the NEC’s role is likely to be replaced in an Obama administration by some sort of national energy council — and yes, they had better come up with a name that doesn’t have the same acronym as the original NEC.

I don’t know why the media simply refuses to take Obama at his word on his commitment to clean energy and strong action on climate — “The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.” But for those who insist on trying to read the tea leaves of his national security team to figure out what he “really” thinks, then judge him by his choice of Hillary Clinton for SOS, a position that is central to our international climate negotiating.

Clinton has been a leader on climate issues for a long time. And she made strong climate action a cornerstone of her run for the president (see “Clinton’s outstanding energy and climate plan“). I expect she will weigh in heavily on climate policy — and that is all to the good.

Now you might say, “but the NSA has the ear of the President — won’t Gen. Jones be in a position to give the President terrible advice on, say, domestic oil shale production?” And I would reply, “Why would Jones waste the time and patience of the President — not to mention his own political capital and credibility — offering opinions on subjects that are not in his portfolio, and therefore represent issues that he does not follow closely and does not stay actively engaged on in high-level interagency meetings? Why would he piss off the Secretary of Energy, the SOS, the energy czar and EPA administrator (among others) by going behind their backs or over their heads to undercut whatever policies that the relevant agencies and the relevant interagency councils had agreed upon.”

Seriously, this isn’t the way the executive branch works. You have a portfolio of subjects, and you make yourself the Administration’s expert on those subjects, and you staff up on those subjects, and you send your staff to the relevant interagency meetings, and you attend the relevant Cabinet meetings. You pick your battles very carefully and you don’t piss off your colleagues by intruding into their portfolio because on issues where your portfolios do intersect, you want them to support you, and on all other issues, you don’t want them to intrude on you either.

These cabinet level jobs are absurdly hard as it is. Heck, I had an acting assistant Secretary job for six months and it was a pure burnout job. I don’t know how people do it for four years, but they don’t do it by pissing on other’s people’s front yards — or back yards.

So I stand by what I told the Politico. In case you didn’t actually read the story to the very end:

Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, isn’t overly concerned about Jones’ views on energy and security, because the national security adviser’s role on domestic energy issues has historically been small.

As secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), will likely play a larger role in climate issues in terms of the industries and technologies that the U.S. promotes overseas.

“I don’t see how the national security adviser has a big role in the energy strategy, particularly because it looks like there will be an energy and climate czar. Is it good that we have a national security adviser who is well informed on energy? Yes,” Romm said. “But I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over whether something he said is not exactly the same as what Obama has said.”

Now there are some recent high level appointments I worry about from a climate perspective, but they will be the subject of another post.

5 Responses to Stuff I learned at DOE, Part 1: SOS trumps NSA (Hillary Clinton trumps Gen. Jones)

  1. Jim Bullis says:

    I hope there is not going to be a climate information advisor who you call “the CIA.”

  2. Jim Bullis says:

    More seriously, things can change, and to have the national security advisor taking a serious view of energy could be a good thing. I know the word coal gets back into the picture here, but it really is a big part of the US energy system.

    It is very clear that it would be very desirable to stop coal usage, but effectiveness of possible strategies to get that done seem to be an important debate. I tend to think that a somewhat business friendly, and therefore somewhat consumer friendly, approach could be more productive than trying to impose mandates and taxes to get rid of coal. So it might be a good thing to include the power of national security interests in the mix.

    In general, the lower the cost of oil, the lower will be the cost of competing energy sources like natural gas. For example, cheaper oil could mean that propane can be made more plentiful and that can help alleviate demand for natural gas. If that can make natural gas cheaper, then it can begin to compete with coal. If we can squeeze two to three times as much electricity out of the natural gas burned, then the use of coal will end naturally. This improved “squeezing” would come from distributed cogeneration in my scheme of things.

    I recall that you approve of cogeneration. Even so, my scheme of distributed cogeneration does not seem to get much traction with you. Of course it depends on changing motor vehicles, but the good news is that such change does not carry a high investment cost beyond the cost of normal car replacements. In my thinking, I weigh that against spending trillions on large scale wind or solar projects, where the prospect of getting the public to fund that kind of projects seems dim.

    A system that all departments of government could support might have a decent chance of getting implemented.

  3. Sam says:

    Joe, I hear what you’re saying about executive bureaucrats needing to mind their own business and not step into others’ bailiwicks, but it sounds like Jones thinks that domestically energy production is–or should be–a central task for national security. In which he will try to insert himself in the policy debate. Here is a comment from a wsj blog that expresses this view:

    Team Obama: New National Security Adviser, Jim Jones, Puts Energy First
    Posted by Keith Johnson

    U.S. presidents have been talking about energy security and searching for an energy policy since Nixon was popular. By tapping General James Jones as his national security adviser, President-elect Barack Obama is indicating that the great energy debate will take place at the epicenter of U.S. national security—and that the outcome of that debate will look more like “all of the above” and less like a “green revolution.”

    For Gen. Jones, formerly the Marine commandant and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, “energy is a national security issue, and it is an international security issue of the highest order.” Gen. Jones is the president and chief executive of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In November, the Institute offered Mr. Obama a roadmap for bolstering U.S. energy security as a key component of increasing its national security. (Our colleagues at Washington Wire have more on the national security team announcement.)

    The Institute’s business-friendly approach advocates more of everything—more domestic oil and gas, more nuclear power, more coal, more renewable energy, and above all, for the federal government to cut through regulatory thickets that have hamstrung U.S. energy modernization in recent years. The key message from the Institute’s transition plan is that U.S. economic and security interests have suffered due to the lack of a comprehensive national energy plan that addresses how we can get more energy and how we can use less.

    The only thing Gen. James doesn’t countenance is more of the same: “We are in a race against the clock and complacency is our greatest enemy. If we do not take this challenge seriously, America’s economic prosperity, national security, and global standing will be at risk. The status quo is not only an option, it is a recipe for failure.”

    One of the Institute’s other recommendations for the next president? The creation of an energy-policy chieftain who will sit on both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council to make sure that energy is the common thread uniting disparate government policy.

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    What was that last acronym, Joe? It seems to have been omitted by mistake. :)

  5. Joe says:

    Energy is called a national security issue because it is central to the health and well-being of future generations.

    That doesn’t mean it falls under the domain of the NSA or NSC. It doesn’t, except perhaps terrorist- or war-related foreign energy problems.

    I suppose if the NSA didn’t have very many problems to focus on he could dabble in unrelated issues. Fortunately or unfortunately, General Jones will find that traditional military security issues will be an 100-hour-a-week+ job.