Obama's Commerce Secretary Pick No Environmental Champion

WASHINGTON, DC, February 3, 2009 (ENS) – President Barack Obama today named U.S. Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican, to fill the slot of Commerce Secretary in his cabinet.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gregg will join Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a total of three Republicans in the Obama Cabinet.

The President called his former Senate colleague a “master of reaching across the aisle” and complimented his “strict fiscal discipline.” But Obama mentioned no environmental credentials for his choice, although the Department of Commerce governs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

From left, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Judd Gregg, President Barack Obama (Photo courtesy The White House)

NOAA has many environmental functions including the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the National Ocean Service; the National Weather Service; and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

“The Commerce Department has a broad and interesting portfolio,” Senator Gregg said today, “but its primary goal must be to create jobs by promoting industry, promoting economic activity, and promoting excellence in science. And I intend to pursue those avenues aggressively.”

A former congressman from 1980-1988, and a governor of New Hampshire from 1989-1993, Gregg has been serving in the Senate since 1993, and is currently ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.

In the Senate, Gregg has a record of supporting commercial exploitation of resources, including offshore drilling, over environmental protection, although he has voted for some conservation measures.

The League of Conservation Voters’ Scorecard for the 2008 session of Congress scored Gregg at just nine percent for pro-environmental votes. His total LCV score since 1993 is 44 percent.

Republicans for Environmental Protection, a nonprofit group, issued Gregg an “environmental harm demerit” for sponsoring a Fiscal Year 2007 budget resolution that used the congressional budget process to force oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On March 16, 2006 the Senate passed the resolution by a 51-49 vote. In the House, pro-conservation Republicans stood with Democrats to ensure that Arctic drilling was not included in the House budget resolution. The two bills were never reconciled in conference, so the Arctic refuge remains protected.

Backpackers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by Out in Alaska)

REP said drilling in the refuge “would perpetuate America’s dangerous oil dependence and damage the most scenic, wildlife-rich reserve in the circumpolar north.”

He has voted against environmental funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and did not vote to fund programs for conserving public lands and wildlife, oceans, coasts, water and farmland.

On the other hand, REP praised Gregg for helping secure passage of S. 4001, the New England Wilderness Act, which designated as wilderness nearly 35,000 acres of forests, mountains, and streams in New Hampshire and 42,000 acres in Vermont.

REP’s 2007 Congressional Scorecard rated Gregg as fourth best Republican in the Senate for environmental voting.

The University of New Hampshire renamed its Environmental Technology Building Gregg Hall, because Gregg used earmarks to secure $266 million of federal funds for research and development projects for the university.

The Judd Gregg Meteorology Institute, established in 2003, is the center of meteorological and atmospheric research at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire, which offers the only meteorology degree program in the state.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, an urgent issue Gregg will have to address at NOAA is upgrading infrastructure for responding to maritime accidents in the Arctic.

On Thursday, NOAA issued a joint report with the University of New Hampshire warning that more needs to be done to enhance emergency response capacity as Arctic sea ice declines due to climate warming and ship traffic in the region increases.

Scientists study ice patterns high in theArctic (Photo courtesy NOAA)

“The reduction of polar sea ice and the increasing worldwide demand for energy will likely result in a dramatic increase in the number of vessels that travel Arctic waters,” said Nancy Kinner, a UNH professor of civil and environmental engineering who serves as co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center, based at the university.

“As vessel traffic increases, disaster scenarios are going to become more of a reality,” she said.

The report details findings from a panel of experts and decision-makers from Arctic nation governments, industry and indigenous communities convened by the CRRC.

The panel examined five potential emergency response scenarios – a grounded cruise ship whose 2,000 passengers and crew must abandon the vessel; an ice-trapped and damaged ore carrier; an explosion on a fixed drilling rig north of Alaska; a collision between a tanker and fishing vessel that results in a large oil spill; and the grounding of a tug towing a supplies barge in an environmentally sensitive area near the Bering Strait.

“Now is the time to prepare for maritime accidents and potential spills in the Arctic,” said Amy Merten, NOAA co-director of the center. “This report clearly indicates that international cooperation and adequate resources are key to saving lives and protecting this special region.”

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