Behind the beard

Bill Richardson - he of the fabled disappearing goatee - got the nod to run Barack Obama’s Department of Commerce yesterday. In normal political cycles, greens wouldn’t pay much attention to Commerce; while the departmental chief oversees important environmental areas like oceans and fisheries, the post normally goes to CEOs and Chamber-of-Commerce types with little interest in environmental affairs. This year, though, there’s more at stake. Barack Obama wants to use Commerce to spearhead his green-jobs initiatives, and plans to make environmental concerns part and parcel of any trade negotiations held by his administration. Richardson’s job, Obama said yesterday, would be nothing less than to revive the economy, build a new clean-energy sector from the ground up, and create green jobs to keep America competitive in the 21st century.

That’s a pretty hefty brief - so is Richardson up to the task? Well, he certainly knows energy policy, having served as Clinton’s Energy Secretary and sat on the board of several energy companies, including a solar-energy manufacturer and (less laudably) a petroleum-refining company and an offshore-drilling outfit.

And despite his moderately troubling corporate CV, Richardson’s record suggests that he’s not overly beholden to the fossil-fuel sector: as Governor of New Mexico, he made the state the first in the country to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, a carbon-trading network, entered a five-state regional climate compact, and signed several important executive orders designed to reduce the state’s emissions and boost the renewable-energy sector. Richardson also appears to genuinely understand the need for national environmental reform: during last year’s ill-fated presidential run, he styled himself as the “energy president” and promised to set ambitious targets for cutting national carbon emissions.

Perhaps the best news of all, though, is that Richardson - a popular governor and onetime Cabinet-level official who’d been touted as a potential Secretary of State - is seen as overqualified for the job at hand. Having taken a de facto demotion to remain in Obama’s inner circle, Richardson can’t afford to sit on his hands; to make an impression (and ultimately work his way up the ladder) he needs to shine. The best way for him to do that is to shake up the business-as-usual culture at the Department of Commerce and inject a little urgency into the push for green-job creation and clean-tech development. Richardson might not have been the obvious choice to run Commerce, but he’s got more reason that most to use the position to spur a clean-energy revolution.