Robert W. Fri, long a major figure in environmental and energy policy in Washington, although better known to the public as a director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, died October 10 at Sibley Hospital in Washington. The Washington Post obituary said the cause was lung cancer. He was 78.
As an energy and environmental reporter going back more than three decades, I dealt with Bob Fri on many issues. Unlike many Washington figures involved in complex and controversial topics, Fri was unfailingly open, calm, remarkably jargon-free, and never offended by tough, sometimes irreverent, questioning. I liked him very much.
While Fri led the Natural History Museum for five years – from 1996 until 2001, when he resigned in a dispute with the later-discredited Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small — his most important contributions came before those days. After earning degrees in physics from Rice University and business administration from Harvard and Navy service, in 1963 Kansas City native Fri came to Washington to work in the prestigious McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. In 1973, he was named deputy director of the newly-created Environmental Protection Agency, serving as second in command to William Ruckelshaus. In 1973, when Ruckelshaus left EPA to become acting FBI director, replacing L. Patrick Gray during the Watergate scandal, President Nixon named Fri acting EPA director.
In 1975, Fri moved to the newly-created Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), built from the dismantling of the Atomic Energy Commission in the Ford administration, as deputy director to Robert Seamans, former NASA chief. Fri was a key figure on the policy side of the new agency. ERDA became a core part of the U.S. Department of Energy in the Carter administration. Seamans resigned in January 1977 and Fri became acting ERDA administrator.
Out of government during the Carter administration, Fri was president of private-sector Energy Transition Corp., which sought access to funds from the soon-to-be defunct U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corp. His firm’s principals included Reagan administration CIA director William Casey and former Reagan Federal Energy Administration chief Frank Zarb. The company sought federal loans to build a project turning North Carolina peat into a pelletized sold boiler fuel. It was widely ridiculed (by me among others) as making synthetic coal, when the nation was looking for liquid transportation fuels. Although the backers of the project were well-connected politically, the firm was not awarded government support. The synfuels corporation died a politically-bloody death in 1985.
From 1985 to 1995, Fri was the president of Resources for the Future, a well-respected and independent Washington think tank that specializes in melding economics with environmental and natural resource issues. During that period, RFF turned out a large number of useful studies, analyses, and books on energy and environmental topics of the day. Fri remained a visiting scholar at RFF throughout his later life.