Heather Zichal spent her early days in the Obama administration pushing a climate-change bill in Congress that oil and gas companies helped to derail.
Now President Barack Obama has named Zichal, his deputy assistant for energy and climate change, as a liaison to that industry, and to make sure proposed rules don’t slow the surge in U.S. natural-gas development.
With energy emerging as a central topic in the 2012 presidential race, efforts by the 36-year-old Iowa native may help Obama blunt a Republican refrain that he’s abandoned cheaper traditional sources of power in favor of renewable energy such as wind and solar favored by Democrats.
“It’s hard to overstate how natural gas and our ability to access more of it than ever has become a game changer,” Zichal said in a speech at a May 14 event sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group critical of Obama’s energy policies.
Among Zichal’s tasks is wooing Jack Gerard, chief executive officer of the oil group who has described administration policies as “absurd” and “wishful thinking.”
Gerard in an interview said he has come to appreciate Zichal’s candor, if not all of her political positions. At the API event, Idaho native Gerard said they did have something in common: their rural upbringing.
“We agree on a few things and we disagree on a lot of things, but we can still have a civil conversation,” Gerard, who supports Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the White House, said in an interview. Gerard and API said they welcomed creation of Zichal’s task force on natural gas.
Zichal, picked last month to lead the multiagency task force, is trying to walk a middle ground. She says natural-gas development is the “sweet spot” in the U.S. energy mix because it’s both cheap and cleaner than other fossil fuels.
She told the biggest trade group for oil and gas companies that while states should remain the “No. 1 regulator” -- echoing an industry argument -- U.S. rules can help reassure the public that using water, sand and chemicals to free gas trapped in rock is being watched. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has boosted supplies, driving gas prices to their lowest point in a decade.
Critics say the practice is a threat to groundwater and can increase air pollution.
Zichal, who joined the administration after advising Obama on agriculture, energy and environmental issues during the 2008 campaign, says she gained a strong “land ethic” working on her grandfather’s dairy farm, and learned the proper technique for milking cows.
Zichal would dream up “new ways to recycle,” and insisted her parents collect waste paper from the clinic where her dad worked as a doctor and her mother as a nurse so she could make bedding for the animals on her grandfather’s farm, Zichal recalled in an interview.
Zichal, who describes herself as an “environmentalist through and through,” went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, because she said it offered an environmental policy major. As an aide to Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and two New Jersey Democratic congressmen, she worked on legislation to protect natural resources such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Eric Washburn, a lobbyist and former congressional aide to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said Zichal’s rural roots and unpretentious manner helped the 2008 campaign win over sportsmen and women, who typically vote Republican and were sought by Democrats using environmental initiatives.
“Heather has a Midwestern straightforwardness” and “a lack of guile” that sportsmen appreciated, Washburn said in an e-mail.
Zichal, as White House aide, is now reaching out to executives with deeper loyalty and greater financial ties to Republican causes. Oil and gas groups have spent millions of dollars on political ads questioning Obama’s policies, including the cap-and-trade bill Zichal championed before it died in the Senate in 2010.
Speaking to the American Petroleum Institute conference on fracking, Zichal said the administration “probably could have been doing a lot more outreach from the beginning.”
She told the audience of officials from the industry, Congress and states that oil and gas companies are “incredibly important to our domestic energy portfolio.”
Zichal says Obama’s backing of natural gas shouldn’t be seen as dispensation to a well-heeled industry in an election year.
The administration is promoting natural-gas development because fracking provides access to new reserves of the fuel, in turn creating new economic opportunities -- and jobs -- for manufacturers such as chemical companies, she said.
“In an election year, they’re obviously trying to showcase they are for jobs, whether they’re green jobs or from more traditional sources, and they want someone out there who can talk about those interests,” Washburn said.
Dave McCurdy, chief executive officer of the American Gas Association, a Washington-based trade group of gas utilities, said Zichal’s “cred with the Democratic base” can reassure environmental and health groups about fracking, as industry executives count on her to make sure agencies don’t push unnecessary rules that conflict with the president’s priorities.
As Zichal cultivates the oil and gas industry, she also is managing the administration’s sometimes uneasy relationship with advocates for natural resources and public health, a Democratic constituency.
Environmental groups were angered and frustrated by Obama’s decision in September to postpone indefinitely a regulation to tighten ozone standards, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. Zichal heard many of those complaints.
Environmentalists are wary of Obama’s embrace of natural gas, Beinecke said. While oil and gas producers look to the task force as a way to minimize federal regulations, Beinecke is hoping Zichal and her group ensure the standards strengthen environmental and public-health standards.
Beinecke gives the administration and Zichal credit for pushing back Republican efforts to weaken EPA clean air and water rules.
“She’s very knowledgeable, and well-versed on the issues,” Beinecke said.
Besides API and NRDC, Zichal has also met with officials from America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC:US), and Southwestern Energy Co. (SWN:US), as well as groups like the American Lung Association and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center who advised Obama on energy issues during the 2008 campaign, said Zichal’s skill at forging relationships among disparate groups can benefit Obama.
“A lot of people who don’t trust each other trust Heather,” he said.
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