Home > Profiles > Heather Zichal

Heather Zichal

Current Position: Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (since January 2009)

Why She Matters

With 17 years of experience in environmental and energy policy on Capitol Hill, Zichal has an inside track on Congress’ legislative workings. As the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, she'll serve under former Environmental Protection Agency-head Carol Browner, who has been tapped to fill a new post as the president's top climate and energy adviser.

Zichal's years of experience on the Hill will be an invaluable asset during her time in the White House, as Obama has called for major investments and policy overhauls in this realm and will need to have key administration officials who know how to work Congress.

During the 2008 campaign, Zichal, 32, served as Barack Obama's top staff adviser on energy, environment, and agriculture and worked from the campaign's Chicago office. She has since advised the transition staff as a member of the Energy and Environment Policy Working Group.(1) In that capacity, she's been a highly visible member of the Obama team, meeting with environmental leaders(2) and discussing Obama's agenda(3) in video segments on the transition team’s Web site.

Path to Power

Zichal was raised in Elkader, Iowa, a rural town in the northeastern part of the state, to parents Dr. Ken and Fran Zichal.(4) She graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in environmental policy, during which time she co-authored a paper  on reforestation and development in Puerto Rico.

After graduation, Zichal began working with New Jersey's congressional delegation on environmental policy. She worked as the legislative director to Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), and later served in the same capacity for Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) from 2001to 2002.

Zichal departed Pallone's office to serve as a legislative assistant to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). During Kerry's failed 2004 bid for the presidency, Zichal was his energy and environment policy adviser. In 2006, she became Kerry's legislative director, a post she held until July 2008, when she joined the Obama campaign.

She joined Obama's staff in Chicago to serve as the policy director for energy, environment and agriculture on July 20, 2008. She joined the transition staff immediately after the 2008 election, serving as a member of the Energy and Environment Policy Working Group, the team shaping Obama's early energy and environment policy.

On Dec. 15, 2008, Obama announced that Zichal had been selected to serve as the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, serving under Browner, who will serve in a new role coordinating climate and energy work within the White House.

The Issues


In an interview with the AgriTalk radio show in October 2008, Zichal spoke strongly in favor of support for and increased use of ethanol and other biofuels.(6)

She said that the Obama administration would maintain subsidies for ethanol, and praised the renewable fuel standard (RFS) enacted in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, a controversial measure that requires 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be blended into the fuel stream each year by 2022. She said that Obama would continue to support the RFS, and favors expanding the requirement to 60 billion gallons of biofuel per year. "From his perspective investing in renewable fuels is vital not only to creating jobs and building our rural economies, but also that goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil," said Zichal.

She also supported maintaining the tariff on imported ethanol, another issue that has become contentious in recent years, in order to maintain a "vibrant renewable fuel policy that creates jobs and economic value here in America," she said.(7) "I think from our perspective the whole point of investing in these homegrown biofuels is so that we don't have to rely on other countries for our sources of energy and we need to continue this path and the more we invest in bringing these prices down and commercializing this technology, we're going to be better off in the long run."

Climate Change

Zichal has been a key player in shaping Kerry's and Obama's climate change policy, serving as one of the chief legislative advisers to both. In the years between the two presidential campaigns, she's seen a shift in the national dialogue, she said in an interview with Grist.(8)

“We barely talked about climate change at all in 2004. It was kind of seen as a little bit of an ‘out there’ concept. Within the last four years, a lot of the great work from the environmental community, a Democratic majority, and being able to hold hearings and look at these issues more directly in Congress has helped,” she said.

"I can't imagine that in 2004 we would have ever talked about cap-and-trade in a speech," Zichal said. "[Now] you can talk about needing to establish a cap-and-trade program to bring greenhouse-gas emissions down, and people will actually understand what you're talking about and not think that you're totally off the reservation."

Zichal also pledged that Obama's administration would take the lead on climate policy internationally, and will push for a national cap-and-trade program. "Rather than taking the backseat [as] we've done under the Bush administration, by taking a leadership role, charging forward, and making an aggressive commitment in this area, we will be able to provide the leadership and re-engage in the international community and show this commitment, and have a better chance of bringing other countries on board with a domestic cap-and-trade program," she said.


At home in Illinois and on the 2008 campaign trail, Obama was a vocal supporter of so-called "clean coal" technology.(9) The term is generally used to refer to coal-fired power plants that have the technology to capture and sequester carbon emissions, preventing them from entering the atmosphere. Yet the technology is not currently available, and most experts predict that wide-scale carbon sequestration is still a decade away.

Obama has been a proponent of government investment in the research and development of these technologies, and fought for completion of FutureGen, the federal government's first pilot "zero-emissions" plant in Illinois. The Bush administration’s Department of Energy shelved the project after the cost ballooned.. In an interview with Grist in October 2008, Zichal echoed Obama's talking points on "clean coal."

Zichal commented: "From a practical perspective, we have a whole lot of coal-fired power plants in this country and we have growing demand [for energy]. I think Sen. Obama recognizes that we have a lot of work to do to figure out that technology, to understand our capacity for carbon capture and sequestration, and iron out a whole host of questions that come along with that," said Zichal. "The FutureGen project was abandoned by the Bush administration.  We can't just continue to duck when it comes to investing in clean coal, which is why [Sen. Obama's] plan calls for five carbon-capture-and-sequestration pilot projects ... We recognize that more research and development needs to be done to commercialize clean-coal technology, and he's dedicated to doing that."

A Bipartisan Energy Plan

On the campaign trail, Obama indicated that he would be willing to endorse(10) a compromise, bipartisan energy plan like last summer's  "Gang of 10" bill,(11) which merged tax incentives and funding for renewable fuels with some offshore drilling. Zichal discussed the plan  on a Wall Street Journal blog.(12)

"For too long, partisan gridlock and special interest influence has blocked progress on some of the most urgent challenges facing the American people, and that is especially true when it comes to our energy crisis," she wrote. "Today’s announcement from the bipartisan 'Gang of Ten' senators — which includes many of the policies Senator Obama has been fighting for during his time in the Senate and over the course of this campaign — represents a good faith effort at a new bipartisan beginning."

"This compromise repeals tax breaks to oil companies and makes them pay their fair share; makes serious investments in more efficient automobile technology and renewable energy like wind and solar; and provides immediate relief to consumers in some ways," she continued. "Like all compromises, it also includes provisions that Senator Obama hasn’t always supported. And while he remains skeptical that new offshore drilling will bring down gas prices in the short-term or significantly reduce our oil dependence in the long-term, he does welcome the establishment of a process that will allow us to make future offshore drilling decisions based on science and fact."

The Network

Zichal joined the Obama campaign on July 20, 2008, to serve as his policy director for energy, environment and agriculture. She has since been a member of transition team’s Energy and Environment Policy Working Group, where she worked closely with former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who has been selected to serve as Obama's top energy and climate adviser.

She also worked as the senior environmental adviser for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 presidential campaign; Kerry is now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the House, Zichal worked for New Jersey Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.


  1. Sheppard, Kate. "Transition talk: The 'E' team," Grist, November 18, 2008. http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/11/18/165043/47
  2. Sheppard, Kate. "Transition to green," Grist, December 9, 2008, http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/12/8/161855/383
  3. "Energy & Environment — Of the People, By the People," video/blog post on the Change.gov website. http://change.gov/page/s/energyenviro
  4. Durbin, Bryce. "Elkader native shaping White House energy policy," The Clayton County Register. December 10, 2008, http://www.claytoncountyregister.com...50/zichal.html
  5. Rudel, Thomas K., Marla  Perez-Lugo and Heather  Zichal. "When Fields Revert to Forest: Development and Spontaneous Reforestation in Post-War Puerto Rico,"  The Professional Geographer, Volume 52 Issue 3, Pages 386 – 397, November 5, 2004. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/j...37683/abstract
  6. Interview with Heather Zichal on AgriTalk Radio, October 2008, http://audio.agritalk.com/wordpress/?p=263
  7. Sheppard, Kate. "Sweetening the deal," Grist, July 3, 2008, http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/7/3/6388/11564
  8. Sheppard, Kate. "She's got Obama's ear," Grist, October 6, 2008. http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/10/6/12441/2728
  9. Sheppard, Kate. "Obama's own pander," Grist, May 6, 2008, http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/5/5/1694/63422
  10. Sheppard, Kate. "Obama's new 'New Energy' plan," Grist, August 4, 2008, http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/8/4/9331/12757
  11. Kady, Martin III and Patrick O'Connor. "'Gang of 10' fights for increased drilling," Politico, July 23, 2008. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0708/11975.html
  12. Murray, Sara. "Can Congress Compromise on Energy?" Wall Street Journal's "Shaping the New Agenda" blog. August 2, 2008., http://blogs.wsj.com/agenda/2008/08/...ise-on-energy/


Powered by MindTouch Deki v.8.08.2