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Obama's Commerce Secretary Pick: Green Evangelist or Economic Savior?

John Bryson, President Obama's pick for Commerce secretary, has predictably drawn reaction from both sides of the political stage. He's either a green evangelist who will kill jobs or a savvy and seasoned businessman who understands the struggles of U.S. companies. The more honest assessment is that he's both. And that could be just what the country needs right now.

It will take a lot of careful digging to extract the U.S. from its current energy dilemma. The challenge will be to meet our energy needs in a cleaner, more efficient and domestically produced way without sending certain fossil fuel industries into an economic tailspin. Bryson's background in the energy biz makes him sensitive to the concerns of big industry. His environmental resume hints that he won't kowtow to big business' every whim either.

Green credentials
The green evangelist remark from GOP lawmaker Darrell Issa most likely stems from Bryson's involvement with the National Resources Defense Council, a powerful environmental group that he co-founded several decades ago while attending Yale Law School. But his green street cred goes far beyond those heady days at Yale. Here's a quick rundown of some of his greener roles.

  • Previously co-chaired Electric Drive Transportation Association
  • Board chairman of BrightSource Energy, a solar company that recently secured a $168 million investment from Google (GOOG).
  • Member of the United Nation Secretary-General's Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change
  • former chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board
Bryson is best known for his 18-year stint as CEO of Edison International, a California-based power generator and the parent company of utility Southern California Edison. The state's electricity market meltdown in 2000 and 2001 caused frequent rolling blackouts and helped end then-Gov. Gray Davis' political career. Bryson (and Edison) was one of the few who survived the energy crisis. He was widely credited for keeping Edison out of bankruptcy, a fate that befell rival Pacific Gas & Electric.

What his appointment will mean for business

Some GOP lawmakers fear Bryson will steer the country away from domestic oil and gas production and towards an economy that places higher taxes on fossil fuels and more restrictions on power plants. Those fears are understandable, but highly unlikely.

Bryson will promote clean energy. But he also understands, perhaps better than anyone, the country's energy challenges. He has first-hand knowledge of what it will take -- in terms of time, money and government support -- for power plants to become more energy efficient and use more renewables.

That's good news for the solar, wind and natural gas industries. Bryson also will likely support efforts to upgrade the transmission grid, one of the cruxes to greater adoption of renewable energy. Coal, on the other hand, won't fare nearly as well.

Still, Bryson will likely focus most of his efforts on promoting U.S.-based clean energy manufacturing, not tearing down the existing energy infrastructure. That means he'll push to create more incentives for companies like solar panel manufacturers and battery makers to stay in the United States in hopes of building a clean energy economy.

Photo from Flickr user Jenny Downing, CC 2.0

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