Also mentioned was McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, who led the drafting of the EPA's air quality regulations, including the greenhouse gas and fuel economy rules.
"They've been focused on trying to make efforts to reduce the threat of pollution during a severe economic downturn," Weiss said. "That's going to continue."
Another choice would be Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board. Nichols has managed the buildup to California's cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions and has been praised for making the Golden State a worldwide leader in environmental work.
But Nichols could face fierce opposition from the business community that sees cap and trade as an economic impediment. And some supporters say she might not even be interested in the job.
"To the extent that she wants to be in a position of global leadership on climate change, California has that right now," said Roy of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "EPA isn't working to the extent that California is right now and it's hard for me to see her leaving without a greater mandate."
The Department of Energy, buoyed by $90 billion in economic stimulus money set aside for clean energy programs, expanded its scope in Obama's first term beyond its traditional research and development role.
But its work in clean energy financing also opened the department to accusations of cronyism from the right, topped by the Solyndra scandal. Republicans launched several Congressional investigations into the loans, had Chu testify before the House Oversight Committee and put the loan programs on the chopping block in House budgets.
Most agree that the new DOE secretary will need to have more political chops than Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, in order to withstand congressional investigations and negotiate with lawmakers to preserve funding for its clean energy investments. The green groups say the new secretary will have vast power to shape how the administration promotes clean energy.
"A lot of what happens at DOE depends on who the secretary is going to be," said CAP's Weiss.
Topping most lists is Dorgan, a Democrat who served on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chaired the budget subcommittee overseeing the Energy Department. In the Senate, Dorgan had a reputation for working across the aisle and was a champion of clean energy, although he also supported measures that would help his home state's oil and natural gas drilling industries.
Granholm would also bring political heft to the department, although her liberal leanings and her talk show on the progressive channel CurrentTV would make her a tough sell to Republicans. In two terms in the Michigan statehouse, Granholm made clean energy a priority. She attracted solar, wind and electric vehicle companies to the state to replace lost automotive jobs and oversaw passage of a Renewable Portfolio Standard mandating that 10 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2015.
Other possible candidates include Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who has promoted renewable and nuclear energy in her home state, and John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and CAP's current chair.
Weiss said it's also possible that Obama could select someone with business experience to head the department, a move that would signal the administration's intention to work with the electricity and industrial sector.
Several groups mentioned Rogers of Duke Energy as a possibility, given his close ties to the White House. Rogers, who recently announced his intention to leave the Charlotte, N.C., company in 2013, co-chaired the Democratic National Convention and has been a booster for Obama's renewable energy initiatives.
Whoever gets the job will have to deal effectively with Congress and the White House budget authors, who ultimately will determine how much money the department will have available to invest in renewables.
"I can't imagine an expansion of any kind of a loan guarantee program," said Loris of the Heritage Foundation. "Given our fiscal situation and some dissent about what the role of DOE is, I think that's an area that could be ripe for spending cuts."
David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, doesn't see the agency moving away from clean energy investments, given that clean energy has been "a powerful piece of the administration's success story."
But EDF's Keohane said there's plenty of room for the Energy Department to maneuver outside of the loan programs. The agency could continue to push energy efficiency standards for appliances or in the electric industry. It could also help craft rules and provide technical assistance as more states and localities eye smart grid technology.
If the loan program is slashed, Roy at the Center of Climate and Energy Solutions, expects the agency to focus on highlighting some of its successful loans and use them as a model to help make clean technology commercially feasible.
"The point of investing in a solar or an electric vehicle plant is not to help one plant advance, it's to get the technology further down the learning curve and cost curve," Roy said.
The agency also could focus on R&D through its national labs and the popular Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which supports high-risk energy technology projects.
Under the right leadership, Roy said, the Energy Department can play an important role for the White House by promoting both its climate and its economic messages.
"Can we get back to a point where the administration is arguing about the importance of clean energy? That's going to drive things as much as anything," Roy said. "There's room to talk more robustly about the economic future and the role of clean energy. We need to see a return to that."
(InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science. More information is available at http://insideclimatenews.org/.)
©2012 InsideClimate News
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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