Obama’s former climate czar savors ‘newly fun life,’ ponders next move

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, October 27, 2014

Heather Zichal eloped last month in Croatia, where she also biked about 30 miles per day, went sailing and chatted up winemakers about global warming’s toll on their industry.

Zichal, who resigned late last year as President Obama’s top climate and energy adviser, called the trip a badly needed break after a six-year marathon that started on the campaign trail and ended with a top White House post.

“I’d worked on the campaign since 2007, and as amazing as the opportunity is — I was part of things I never dreamt I’d be part of — there comes a time when … you’re just physically and mentally exhausted,” the 38-year-old Zichal said in an interview.

She’d had an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and reported directly to Obama’s chief of staff. “I had my fingerprints on every signature decision related to energy and climate,” she said. She lists her role in the administration’s fuel economy standards and EPA rules to clamp down on mercury and cross-state air pollution as some of the work she’s proudest of.

She left the White House last November after the rollout of Obama’s second-term climate agenda, becoming the second person to leave the administration’s energy and climate post; her former boss, Carol Browner, left in 2011.

Zichal’s departure coincided with the exit of other top White House environmental officials, prompting questions about who would carry out the agenda they helped create (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2013). But she said she never doubted that the Obama agenda would be carried out.

“I felt confident that we had a road map in place,” Zichal said. “Locking in the Climate Action Plan” with a presidential memorandum directing EPA to clamp down on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions “really sort of put all the agencies on a track to deliver a very aggressive set of executive actions.”

She added, “We’d figured out exactly what we needed to do. Not that implementation is a walk in the park, but it just was a natural point in time for me to leave and focus on recharging the batteries, but also personal issues that I was focused on.”

Zichal’s former deputy, Dan Utech, took over her job.

Zichal is quick to add that leadership on climate issues comes from Obama himself.

“It is very clear that climate policy is an important part of his legacy,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not completely buried dealing with Ebola or ISIS or whatever the crisis of the day is. But behind all of that, there is a constant drumbeat of activity around climate change.”

Since leaving the White House, Zichal has been active on a few boards and nonprofit projects.

She’s working on three boards, advising Houston liquefied natural gas giant Cheniere Energy Inc., California-based lighting technology company Sensity Systems and Spanish company Abengoa Bioenergy, she said. She’s a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and working with NatureVest, a project run by the Nature Conservancy to advance investment in conservation projects.

She’s also a strategic adviser to a handful of clients — companies and nonprofits — “that are trying to think through key energy and environmental issues, and that sort of runs the gamut of everything from climate politics to the evolution of the U.S. energy portfolio.”

That portfolio “helps me stay engaged at a point in time when things domestically are changing very quickly and allows me to sort of stay on top of the issues,” Zichal said. It also “gives me an opportunity to sort of use all of the skills, knowledge and relationships that I built up over time to remain a thought leader in this area, which is really important to me.”

But Zichal hasn’t yet decided on her long-term career plans. Still, expect her to stay in the climate and energy arena.

“I have dedicated my professional career to advancing a responsible energy and climate agenda, and I’m going to continue to play in that space,” she said. “What that looks like in five years, I don’t exactly know.”

Having spent years in government before joining the Obama administration, Zichal said she has welcomed the opportunity to understand the private sector better. She was legislative director to then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) after working on his 2004 presidential campaign; she was also legislative director for New Jersey Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

For now, she wants to stay on top of the decisions that the administration and Congress are facing, how they might play out, and what the impacts are. “Being able to stay in the mix on that is very important and will continue to be important to me,” she said.

She isn’t ruling out jumping back into politics — or the next administration — in the future.

“I feel like I just left the Obama White House, and it’s kind of hard to contemplate going back in at this point in time. … I’m really sort of enjoying sort of a newly fun life and being able to have a life,” she said. “And, that being said, I of course am going to work as hard as I can to support any of the great Democrats running in 2016, and who knows what the future holds?”

No longer ‘locked in the White House’

For now, Zichal is enjoying life beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

She recently met with a reporter on a weekday afternoon in Washington, D.C., just out of the gym and wearing a T-shirt with a Superman shield emblazoned on the front.

While there was plenty of work and little free time at the White House, there were also deluxe workouts for Zichal with the first family’s personal trainer.

“We had access to the amazing Cornell McClellan — the president’s trainer in the White House — so he would train us in the [Eisenhower Executive Office Building],” she said. “There wasn’t a lot that I was able to do consistently, but twice a week I would never miss training with Cornell.”

Now, she spends a lot of time biking with her new husband, Senate Democratic staffer Jayme White.

“The biking addiction is such that we spent our entire honeymoon on our bikes,” she said. “I liked biking until I got into a relationship with Jayme, who’s seriously obsessed.”

White works for Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as chief adviser for international competitiveness and innovation. White, a Seattle native, previously worked for Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) for nearly a decade.

The couple met about two years ago, when they were introduced by Daniel Sepulveda, a mutual friend who works at the State Department and is married to Zichal’s best friend, Heather Higginbottom.

“And Danny was like, ‘Oh, Heather bikes and Jayme bikes, Heather hasn’t been in a relationship for a really long time because she’s been locked in the White House, so we should hook the two of them up,'” Zichal said.

They have more in common than just that, she said, including their fondness for dogs.

They have two dogs: Zichal’s mixed-breed rescue dog, named Loosa, and White’s golden retriever puppy, River. Loosa’s favorite pastime is chasing down a fox at the Congressional Cemetery, Zichal said; River’s favorite activity is lying anywhere he can and sleeping.

“They are best friends, and they go everywhere we go,” she said. “We take them backpacking, we take them hiking. They love going to the grocery store on grocery runs because they get ice cream.”