From the start Heather Zichal, chief energy adviser to President Barack Obama, struck Elgie Holstein as an unusual Washington player.

He got to know her when Zichal was a Congressional aide for Senator John Kerry, a position she held from 2002 to 2008. One day, she sought out Holstein, a veteran policy adviser who had served in the Clinton administration, because she needed information on refinery economics.

“It was a substantive inquiry,” said Holstein, who is now a senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund. “We talked about it, and then she invited me to come to Senator Kerry’s office to meet with him and discuss the same set of issues.”

That is where Zichal diverged from the Washington norm, he said. Typically, senior staffers repackage such interviews and present the information to the boss as their own, rather than make the source of the information front and center.

“I felt it was an unusual and noteworthy kind of thing for a senior senate staffer to do – not to claim that she knew everything about everything, but rather to bring in somebody to give her boss some perspective other than hers. I thought it was a class act, and I was really struck by it and impressed,” Holstein said.

It is this willingness to invite others to the table, whether they conform with her opinion or not, that helped the 36-year-old Iowa native in her mercurial rise to a top policy position, say those who have worked with her.

“She is collaborative to a ‘T’,” said Melinda Pierce, lead lobbyist for the Sierra Club, where Zichal worked as an intern while studying environmental policy at Rutgers University.

Rich in Political Cred

Her background is markedly different from that of billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, energy adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign (See Part I of this series, “Who Obama and Romney listen to on energy.”) They do share in common a small town, rural upbringing – Zichal was raised in Elkader, Iowa, a town with a population of about 1,200. But that is as far as the similarities seem to go.

Where Hamm worked his way up in business, Zichal worked her way up in government. Where Hamm earned a substantial fortune, Zichal earned substantial political cred.

“The President by all signs and all reports trusts her completely,” Holstein said. “By now the President, four years in, has defined his energy policy and clearly there are some who like those policies better than others. Yet, I hear nothing but compliments about Heather’s willingness to listen, about her open mindedness and about her accessibility.”

After graduating from Rutgers in 1999, Zichal worked as an aide on Capitol Hill, first for Rep. Rush Holt and later Rep. Frank Pallone, both Democrats from New Jersey. She signed on with Kerry’s office in 2002 and also served as top energy and environmental adviser for his unsuccessful 2004 presidential bid. Later, when Obama decided to run for president, Holstein urged Zichal to join the campaign.

“I had been working for Senator Obama since January 2008, and I called her up begging her to come and work for Senator Obama. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one,” he said. “There were people who were a lot closer to the senator than I was that were making the same case.”

After Obama took office, Zichal served under Carol Browner, then chief energy adviser to the President. When Browner left in early 2011, Zichal stepped into her role, acting as adviser to Obama under the title deputy assistant for energy and climate change.

Her rank in the Obama administration is higher than is typical for a presidential energy and environmental adviser, according to Holstein. This speaks to Obama’s decision to make energy a key part of his agenda.

Light Handprint

Zichal’s colleagues describe her as a savvy political strategist with a quick intellect and deep grasp of the often complex energy world.

“Heather is very matter-of-fact personally and professionally. She’s not a know-it-all, but you don’t want to be on the other side of a trivia game with her because you are going to lose,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director at the NRDC Action Fund, who has known her for about a decade.

Where does Zichal’s influence show up in Obama’s agenda? It’s not obvious, and isn’t supposed to be, given her role. Unlike Hamm, who advises Romney in the political sphere and therefore doesn’t have to subordinate his own itinerary, Zichal is a White House employee charged with representing Obama’s policy and making it happen.

Still, those who know her say they discern Zichal’s handprint – however light – at times.
“When the President speaks of his all-of-the-above strategy, that is where I see the balance and good judgment of Heather Zichal,” Holstein said.

Others say they see Zichal’s thinking in Obama’s fuel economy standards and restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants.

A You Tube video shows Zichal early in her tenure at the White House talking about climate change legislation and cap and trade. “Pricing carbon throughout the economy creates the incentive for small entrepreneurs and multinational corporations alike to seek out and exploit the lowest cost ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she told the Business Council for Sustainable Energy in October 2009.

More recently, Obama has grown quieter on the topic of climate change and so, it appears, has Zichal. She last posted a blog on the White House site in August, her topic the wind production tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends it. “It’s time for Congress to put politics aside, and support this clear job provision, that supports American workers, American manufacturing, and American competiveness,” Zichal wrote.

When the President speaks of his all-of-the-above strategy, that is where I see the balance and good judgment of Heather Zichal,”

She also blogged this year about cutting oil subsidies (an Obama priority), fuel standards, the administration’s mercury restrictions, energy efficiency, and an increasingly hot topic, the US’ natural gas boom. Viewed as heavily in the renewables camp, the Obama administration has been working to show it supports natural gas as well.

“We know that natural gas can safely be developed, and to the credit of the industry there are many companies that are leaning into this challenge and promoting best practices for safer and more efficient production,” Zichal said speaking in May at an American Petroleum Institute workshop on hydraulic fracturing.

Of course, not all are happy with the Obama agenda and by extension the message Zichal pedals. Americans for Prosperity, advocates for small government, did not comment directly on Zichal. But James Valvo, director of policy, said that Obama “has demonstrated through his actions, and those of his agency secretaries and administrators, that he is committed to crippling domestic, affordable and reliable forms of energy. The President misguidedly believes that it is possible for bureaucrats to successfully shape industrial policy in the energy sector.”

Praised or criticized, Zichal continues to do her job undeterred and un-jaded, say her colleagues. “People come to Washington starry-eyed. Heather’s overwhelming quality is that she still hasn’t lost her optimism,” said Taylor-Miesle said.