Nordhaus helped craft much of the ground-breaking federal energy legislation passed after the 1973 oil embargo – first with the House Legislative Counsel and then as counsel to the House Commerce Committee.
He was a member of the Energy Policy and Planning Office under President Jimmy Carter, served as assistant administrator of the Federal Energy Administration, and later was general counsel at the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton.
Nordhaus died at his home in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve. He was 79 and had been fighting prostate cancer for more than five years, according to his son, Ted Nordhaus.
“My dad had a very dry, sly wit, and he was a slow, deliberative talker,” said Ted, who is the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based energy and environmental think tank.
“He was also a great legal mind” who went to Washington to become involved in environmental issues, “but was not a set-your-hair-on-fire environmentalist.”
Robert Nordhaus grew up in Albuquerque as part of a prominent family with long ties to New Mexico. He was an avid skier and fly fisherman, spending a lot of time on a family-owned ranch outside Las Vegas, N.M. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he studied history and competed on the school’s downhill and cross-country teams.
After serving a year in the U.S. Army Reserve, he attended and graduated from Yale Law School in 1963, where his father, also named Robert, attended law school, and who also had a keen interest in issues related to the environment and natural resources.
Early on, Nordhaus wound up as a staff lawyer in the House Legislative Counsel’s office. There, he worked on a bill that would eventually become the Clean Air Act, and where he crafted a then-controversial provision giving the federal government authority to regulate as-yet unknown pollutants of the future.
Nordhaus believed that reducing carbon pollution was crucial to protecting the environment and the economy from the risks posed by climate change, said his son, Ted.
Although Nordhaus lived in Washington he continued to maintain a home in Taos and frequently returned to the state. For many years he was a member of the board of directors of the Public Service Company of New Mexico.
“He had an incredible impact on energy and climate policy from his days at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” part of the Department of Energy, said Pat Vincent-Collawan, chief executive officer at PNM.
“He provided us with just incredible insights and counsel on our work around the San Juan (coal-fired generating stations) closure and around renewables and climate. He was still on the board when the Facebook (data center) work started, and he really encouraged us to make sure we had a green tariff to serve customers like Facebook. He was very much ahead of the curve.”
She called Nordhaus “an intelligent, warm and caring friend with an incredible sense of humor” and said he knew “all aspects of regulation and kept up on what was going on everywhere in the country.”
The Nordhaus family traces its New Mexico roots back to the 1880s when Max Nordhaus came from Germany to help his brother-in-law, Charles Ilfeld, operate what was then one of the largest mercantile firms in the state. Later, Max took over the business and one of his children, Robert J. Nordhaus, became a prominent environmental attorney representing Indian tribes. He was also instrumental in spearheading the drive to create what is now the Sandia Peak Ski Area.
Robert R. Nordhaus is survived by his wife, Jean Nordhaus of Washington, D.C.; son Ted Nordhaus of California; daughter Hannah Nordhaus of Colorado; siblings Richard Nordhaus and Elizabeth Messeca, both of Albuquerque, and William Nordhaus of Connecticut; and two grandchildren.
The family said it expects to have a memorial service sometime in March in Washington.