The White House announced September 26 that the President intends to nominate corporate lawyer Jane Luxton to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and deputy administrator of NOAA.  If confirmed, Luxton would replace Jim Mahoney, who retired last spring, leaving this position vacant for 6 months so far.  Mahoney was also the director of the interagency U.S. Climate Change Science Program from 2002 until his retirement.  This announcement raises questions about both the nominee and the leadership of federal climate science research.

Jane C. Luxton is currently a partner at King and Spalding, LLP.  According to a biography posted on the King and Spalding Web site, she represents U.S. and foreign industry, including metals and chemical industry groups, on national and international air, water, toxics, and waste regulatory matters.  She chairs the American Bar Association’s International Environmental Law Committee.

Luxton, as deputy to NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, would presumably have the job of overseeing the agency’s day-to-day operations. Her predecessor, Jim Mahoney, also devoted a substantial portion of his attention to chairing the interagency committee for the $1.7 billion U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).  Putting the CCSP on a track to meet the priorities of the administration was an important—probably the most important—component of Mahoney’s portfolio from day one. On a committee made up predominantly of career science program executives from NASA, NOAA, NSF, DOE, EPA, USDA, USGS, and other agencies, Mahoney held a dominant position as a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee.  Mahoney coordinated his direction of the CCSP with the Executive Office of the President, including the highly-political Council on Environmental Quality.

1.  Why is Luxton being nominated for this position?  What credentials does she bring to make her a good choice to oversee the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (including NOAA’s climate change research), and the National Environmental Satellite system, the operational, research, and regulatory components of NOAA?

The nominee has a substantial environmental law practice and has achieved prominence in her field.  But to cut to the chase, how does a career that has been devoted to representing and litigating on behalf of corporate clients on toxics and other regulatory issues fit with NOAA?  What does it say in the context of an administration that has shown a chronic tendency to politicize and police science in the federal agencies? 

Contrast this with the credentials and experience that Jim Mahoney brought to the position of Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator.

2.  Will Luxton also follow Mahoney as director of the Climate Change Science Program?  She has no apparent professional experience with climate change issues and she is not a scientist.  Unless we are missing some key point, it appears that it would be utterly inappropriate (to put it diplomatically) to give her any jurisdiction whatsoever over the CCSP.  We have to believe that this nomination is a sign that the administration has decided to carve the CCSP director position out of the NOAA deputy administrator’s portfolio and assign it to someone else, whether at NOAA or elsewhere.

If so, that announcement remains to be made, some 14 months after Mahoney announced his retirement and some 6 months after he actually retired.  Commerce Deputy Assistant Secretary Bill Brennan remains as the acting CCSP director, and from what we have be able to ascertain, so far is serving basically as a placeholder, while the administration continues its dilatory, careless approach to putting strong leadership at the head of the program.