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President Biden smiles after signing three bills in the State Dining Room at the White House on November 18, 2021.
President Biden smiles after signing three bills in the State Dining Room at the White House on November 18, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The White House has launched a new energy division of its Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and appointed Sally Benson, a well-known energy expert at Stanford University, to a high-level position to contribute to climate change policy.

The announcement, scheduled for Wednesday, illustrates that the White House is racing to fulfill President Joe Biden's ambitious commitments to combat climate change, particularly as Republicans ramp up their attacks on the administration over high gas prices ahead of the holiday season.

Biden has called for achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035 and eliminating the nation's carbon emissions by 2050. Meeting those goals will require a total transformation of America's industrial and transportation systems, including a massive shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy to power homes, businesses, cars and factories.

Benson will serve as deputy director for energy and chief strategist for the energy transition at OSTP. She will also work closely with two other prominent women in U.S. climate policy: Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, and Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at OSTP.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Benson said that one of her top priorities is ensuring that the swift transition to a clean energy economy benefits all Americans, rather than leaving behind some workers in the oil and gas sector and other polluting industries.

"We have a 120-year-old energy system that was built over a long time period, and we're talking about very quickly changing that to a new system," she said. "And this is a huge opportunity for American industry, for American workers, to lead."

Benson added that she plans to help shore up supply chains for the materials needed to make electric vehicles, solar panels and other clean energy technologies. China is trouncing the United States in the global race to secure lithium and cobalt, two minerals vital for electric car batteries.

Before joining the White House, Benson was a professor and co-director of the Center for Carbon Storage at Stanford, where her research focused on burying carbon dioxide underground before it could escape into the atmosphere and warm the Earth. She also held a number of positions at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, including director of the Earth sciences division.

John Holdren, who ran OSTP under President Barack Obama, praised Benson's personal and professional qualifications for the job.

"She is a terrific scientist and engineer," said Holdren, who is now a research professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "And she is a terrific person. She's a team player."

Holdren added that based on his experience in the Obama administration, he expects Benson to regularly huddle with other White House climate advisers and contribute to their policy discussions inside the West Wing.

"The White House is too small to waste the talents of people by confining them very narrowly to a subset of the responsibilities that they're really qualified to contribute to," he said. "You call on all the intellectual talent you've got in the place to think about the big issues together."

James Carafano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank who was the lead author of a 2016 report recommending the elimination of OSTP, blasted the new energy division as a sign of bloated bureaucracy.

"In addition to all the other federal agencies involved, now you're going to have another layer of bureaucracy that's going to be involved in policy decision-making," said Carafano, who served on the transition teams at the Department of Homeland Security and State Department under President Donald Trump.

"I think the whole zero-emission thing is literally nonsense," he added. "It's a political agenda; it's not a science agenda."

In addition to Benson, the White House is bringing in another heavy hitter in climate policy circles: Costa Samaras has joined OSTP as the principal assistant director for energy. Samaras most recently served as an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, where he directed an effort to track the country's progress in deploying clean energy.

Eric Lander, the OSTP director and Biden's science adviser, said in a statement that Benson and Samaras are "leading experts in the energy field who will help us realize an emission-free future where clean electricity is the cheapest and most reliable electricity, where clean fuels are the cheapest fuels, and where we enable equitable access to clean energy services to everyone across the country."

The new OSTP division will help implement the energy provisions in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Congress passed earlier this month. The bipartisan bill included $21.5 billion for clean energy demonstration projects across the country, although Senate Democrats are still struggling to overcome intraparty divisions to pass a massive social spending package, which contains a much larger clean energy investment costing $555 billion.

"We will work to make sure that those funds deliver the impact that we hope," Benson said of the infrastructure bill. "And those technologies will really allow us to start to decarbonize things like the industrial sector and aviation fuels - things that are hard to decarbonize."

In the face of high gas prices, Biden on Tuesday authorized the release of 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Republicans have slammed the move as hypocritical, noting that Biden has sought to curtail oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters as part of his broader climate agenda.

"President Biden's policies are hiking inflation and energy prices for the American people," Sen. John Barrasso, Wyo., the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. "Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will not fix the problem."

Benson defended the SPR decision, saying it would lower prices at the pump for all Americans, including low-income families that spend a disproportionate share of their household income on energy.

"Part of an equitable and just transition is making sure that energy is affordable," she said. "This is incredibly important in the holiday season we're going into."

Correction

Corrects to reflect that new division will help craft climate policy and not coordinate climate policy

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