A recent book by NRDC's cofounder, John Adams, A Force For Nature describes the origins of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Adams tells the story of how he met with a pack of young nerd lawyers from Yale, lubricated with a little Scotch, to talk about work they might do together. Those Yale nerds were brash, as far as John Adams thought at the time - and one of them was a guy named John Bryson. Down the line a little, Bryson opened the California office of NRDC, in Palo Alto, near where he had graduated from Stanford, doing forest and lands work, and later did nuclear waste monitoring. Adams writes about Bryson: "A native of Oregon, John was tall, outgoing, charming, confident, and ambitious in the best sense of word. Meeting him, we immediately saw his potential for accomplishing great things, perhaps a career in politics."
And since that might be so, it seems worth pointing out 5 ways that Bryson's past, present and future work connects to California, its energy issues and environment.
1. THE ENERGY CRISIS. Bryson headed Edison International for 18 years: which means he directed policies for Edison and Southern California Edison during the days of California's energy crisis a decade ago. So a lot of people are going to want to know what it means that Edison survived and even thrived through that crisis. The spotlight may not find a great deal of agreement there. One of Bryson's anonymous critics told RealClearPolitics that he's "is very smart and he's thoughtful, but his company and his tenure as the head of that company were at the heart of California's energy crisis, and if Republicans in the Senate want to look closely at the events at that time, and how Southern California Edison fared, it could pose an uncomfortable confirmation process for Mr. Bryson."
But Politico found someone who thinks the opposite - EEI's Tom Kuhn:
There were lots of warnings, and John was one of the ones making them before the situation happened," said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, the leading trade group for investor-owned utilities. "He led them through it. He led them out of it. And he led them out of a situation where the company got through the major financial hit it took.
2. PLUG-IN CARS. At Southern California Edison, Bryson pushed for plug-in cars and solar power. Wall Street Journal calls that support "at times, nearly solitary." California's regulations would necessarily limit how a utility could profit from greater demand for hybrid and plug-in cars. But Bryson was one of the earliest ones to say they could succeed - predicated on the idea that utilities could use data to track energy demand and encourage off-hours charging. It's a great example of how a California utility can have a major effect on that landscape.
3. LARGE SCALE RENEWABLE ENERGY. Bryson is familiar to conservation activists in California's desert - some of them consider him the enemy. He's the chairman of the board for Brightsource Energy. Brightsource is doing well for itself in the desert, with its Ivanpah project garnering 1.6 billion dollars in loans guaranteed by the Department of Energy, investment from Google and NRG, and credits for beginning construction last year. That fact doesn't sit well with conservation activists - who complain that companies like Brightsource are "promoting utility interests over environmental concerns, to the detriment of the public, taxpayers and the economic interests of utility customers." To his opponents in this arena, Bryson is a one-man evidentiary font of collusion among the Interior department, national-mainstream environmental groups like the NRDC, and big corporate companies building large-scale renewables.
4. NOAA - FISHERIES & OCEANS. You might think of Bryson as a utility and energy executive, but don't forget that Commerce oversees NOAA too. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association has a lot of climate issues on its plate, as well as fisheries management and ocean policy (or what passes for it). I talked to Michael Conathan, the director of ocean policy for the Center for American Progress today - he told me NOAA's going to have plenty on its plate with marine spatial planning and fisheries management policy battles coming up. Not to mention just trying to convince Congress its not a bad idea to have satellites and weather buoys.
Fortunately, Bryson's described as an adroit negotiator in the WSJ. Fast Company writes that NOAA and the National Weather Service could get more money and love from Commerce in a Bryson world. Think so?
5. CAP AND TRADE CARBON CUTTING POLICIES. John Bryson has sounded a conciliatory tone on cap and trade - he did, anyway, when it wasn't dead in DC. The Wall Street Journal writes:
He also weighed in on the controversial proposal to cap the emission of polluting greenhouse gases. He supported carbon restrictions but only if coal-burning utilities were given enough carbon allowances so that their pain would be minimal in the early years of any program. This position, shared by others in the industry, would have allowed a cap-and-trade system to begin, though critics said it would delay an industry response to the climate issue.
Some environmentalists would hate carbon allowances for coal. Some companies would hate even thinking about carbon policy in the first place. Being somewhere between those poles on this issue is the exact kind of red meat that opponents on the left and the right could really rip up if the nomination's not handled right.
P.S. A sixth issue he'll have to deal with - one commonly found in Washington these days: climate deniers. (I can't pass up mentioning this.) The people who would approve the Commerce Secretary - even if the president passes trade agreements Republicans want - include California Republican Dana Rohrbacher, who doesn't accept scientific findings of a changing climate, but who asks, in true O.G. Reagan style:
"Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?" the California Republican asked Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate diplomat and lead witness at the hearing. "Or would people be supportive of cutting down older trees in order to plant younger trees as a means to prevent this disaster from happening?"
Rohrbacher insisted his question was taken out of context, but just in case, Discover magazine debunked him:
While they live these trees absorb CO2, and in fact absorb far more over their lifetime than they emit when they die. They are what scientists would call a net sink of CO2, not a source. So cutting them down would in reality increase CO2 emission."
Just a reminder that while Bryson's nomination concerns California, it plays out against a national backdrop: a slightly different set of political values.