President Barack Obama named former Edison International (EIX) Chief Executive Officer John Bryson as his choice for commerce secretary, drawing on business expertise for a job central to his goal of doubling U.S. exports.
The choice of a private sector executive for the commerce post is the latest move by Obama to repair relations between the White House and the business community that were frayed by disagreements over the administration’s overhaul of health-care and financial regulations.
Bryson drew praise yesterday from business groups as well as from former colleagues and public officials in California, where Edison is based.
“With his extensive knowledge of the private sector and years of experience successfully running a major company, we hope Mister Bryson will be a strong voice for American businesses,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement.
The Business Roundtable, whose members include the chief executives of the nation’s largest corporations, joined the Chamber, which is the nation’s largest business lobbying group, in their support of the nomination.
The president has said development of clean and renewable energy industries in the U.S. is key to keeping the nation competitive in the global economy and increasing U.S. exports to $3.14 trillion by the end of 2014 from $1.57 trillion in 2009. Bryson’s background complements that emphasis.
Bryson joined Edison International, owner of California’s largest electric utility, in 1984 and was named chief executive in October 1990. After serving more than 17 years at the helm, Bryson retired in 2008.
Since last September, Bryson has been chairman of BrightSource Energy Inc., an Oakland, California-based developer of solar power plants. BrightSource, which counts Google Inc. among its investors, is seeking to use solar-thermal technology to generate capacity equal to 11 nuclear power plants.
Earlier this year the company tapped a $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. government to build its Ivanpah project across 3,600 acres in the Mojave Desert. Construction started in October, and the facility will generate 392 megawatts of power.
In introducing him at the White House yesterday, Obama said Bryson is “a business leader who understands what it takes to innovate, to create jobs, and to persevere through tough times.” He also called him “a fierce proponent of alternative energy.”
Bryson’s nomination is subject to Senate confirmation. The chamber’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said yesterday that he and party colleagues were standing by their previous threat to hold up Obama’s commerce pick until administration submits pending free-trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia for approval.
Congressional Democrats want to tie in passage of legislation renewing trade adjustment assistance for workers who lose their jobs because of overseas competition, a measure Republicans oppose.
Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said in a statement he would be “working actively” to defeat the nomination because of Bryson’s role in helping found the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization. Inhofe called the group “a radical environmental organization.”
Climate Change Issue
Inhofe, who has called man-made global warming a hoax, also cited Bryson’s work on a United Nations advisory group on climate change.
Obama’s spokesman urged Republicans to let Bryson’s nomination move through the Senate.
“We think that it would be folly to hold up a nomination so important as the commerce secretary for any reason,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
If confirmed, Bryson, 67, would replace Secretary Gary Locke, who Obama has nominated as U.S. ambassador to China.
The Commerce Department, which has a $7.5 billion budget and more than 46,000 employees, has a diverse mission that includes boosting exports, monitoring the weather, issuing patents, conducting the Census, managing fisheries and expanding broadband technology.
Bryson helped steer Edison’s electric utility, the largest in the state, through the California energy crisis of 2000 and 2001 that bankrupted larger rival Pacific Gas & Electric, a unit of San Francisco-based PG&E Corp. (PCG) Edison was forced to sell most of its overseas assets after its debt rating declined in part due to the crisis.
“There were a bunch of people who could have pulled the string and put Edison into bankruptcy, but there was confidence from the bankers that Bryson and his executive team would do the right things,” Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said in a telephone interview.
Bryson was a leader among U.S. electric utility executives on the issues of renewable energy use, managing greenhouse gas emissions and protection of habitat, said Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board. “His focus on science and outreach to communities are very good predictors of success at the Commerce Department,” Nichols said in an e-mail.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, released a statement yesterday calling Bryson “a visionary leader in promoting a clean environment and a strong economy.”
From 1979 to 1982, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission, where he separated utility profits from power use rates in an effort to spur California utilities to promote energy conservation.
He served on the board of directors for Boeing Co. (BA), the world’s largest aerospace company, since 1995, and at Walt Disney Co. (DIS), the world’s largest media company, since 2000, according to the companies’ websites.
Bryson has a “strong strategic vision and business savvy, along with a keen grasp of policy and its impact on the business environment,” Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger said in an e-mailed statement.
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