Derrick Z. Jackson

A centrist’s dream at Commerce

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 7, 2011

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TOP REPUBLICANS are so down on the environment that they even oppose having a former energy executive run the Commerce Department. President Obama’s nomination of John Bryson, the former CEO of Edison International, to run Commerce, received praise from pro-business groups as well as those that push for environmental regulation. But top Senate Republicans call him an eco-terrorist, and a couple of Massachusetts Democratic representatives say they are troubled by his nomination.

The Commerce Department may not, at first glance, seem as important to the protection of the environment as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Energy or Interior Departments. But Commerce is home to one of the most important federal scientific agencies determining the health of our skies and oceans: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That makes Bryson a fascinating choice to run Commerce. He not only ran one of the nation’s largest electric utilities. Back in 1970, when he was at Yale Law School, he co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s top environmental law groups.

Forty-one years later, with a career of both fighting environmental pollution as well as receiving multi-million-dollar bonuses during ratepayer hikes in California’s perpetual energy crisis, Bryson is largely viewed as a deft navigator between energy production and environmentalism. He seems to be a centrist’s dream.

Araceli Ruano of the Center for American Progress told the Washington Post that Bryson’s “service on boards related to everything from foreign affairs to underprivileged youth has not only made him one of the brightest stars in civil society but will serve him well as secretary.’’

But Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the environment and public works committee, vows to block the nomination, calling Bryson the “founder of a radical environmental organization and a member of a United Nations advisory group on climate change.’’ Inhofe, a leading skeptic of climate change, said Bryson supported environmental legislation that “would cost American taxpayers billions of dollars, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs, and hurt families and workers by raising the price of gasoline and electricity.’’

Also painting Bryson as an eco-terrorist was Darrell Issa of California, the House oversight and government reform chairman. He condemned the nomination by calling Bryson a deeply out of touch “green evangelist’’ who would give us “European-style gas prices.’’

Bryson’s nomination also faces opposition for other reasons. The Republicans and Obama are bickering over pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. While Inhofe rails that Obama’s environmental policies destroy American jobs, the Republicans said in March they would block any Commerce nominee unless Obama drops a job-assistance program for US workers whose jobs are sent overseas.

But lest one think that the Republicans have a lock on environmental irrationality over Bryson, you need look no further than Massachusetts. Representatives John Tierney and Barney Frank issued a joint statement of disappointment over Bryson’s nomination. Echoing Inhofe, they said they were “especially troubled’’ that Bryson’s resume includes the NRDC.

Frank and Tierney are battling the Obama administration over fishing catch limits and last month outgoing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced the return of $650,000 to fishermen unfairly punished by fishery law enforcers. The two congressmen say the NRDC historically has “reflexively attacked the fishing industry inaccurately and without any real environmental basis.’’ But by saying the NRDC was at the forefront of “artificially limiting the number of fish,’’ Tierney and Frank also conveniently ignored where our New England fishing grounds and fleets would be today without any legal limits advocated over the years by environmental groups like the NRDC.

They urged Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown to vote against Bryson’s confirmation unless he assures fishing communities they will be “treated fairly.’’ But joining Inhofe in scapegoating the NRDC is dangerous, as sure as Inhofe’s blog yesterday trumpeted Tierney’s and Frank’s statement. The Republicans are doing all they can to give environmentalism a bad name. On Bryson, Massachusetts gets an assist.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at