WHITE HOUSE: Browner’s resignation seen as the end of an era
Gabriel Nelson, E&E reporter
The departure of White House energy and climate czar Carol Browner could be a sign of a sea change in President Obama’s approach to energy issues, experts say, marking a shift from advancing new climate and energy programs to defending the economic value of the policies that his administration has put in place over its first two years.
Environmentalists are hoping the White House will move quickly to replace the “all-star quarterback of President Obama’s green dream team,” said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
It is unclear whether President Obama will appoint someone to replace Browner or get rid of her office altogether, but recent moves suggest that the White House is starting to focus more on the economic value of his energy policies.
“Every administration has different lives to it. We’re entering the second life,” said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at the centrist think tank Third Way. “That includes different people with different approaches. It also includes a different set of parameters of what’s possible. The key focus of the president right now, understandably, is economic growth.”
Browner, who led U.S. EPA under President Clinton, has been maligned by critics on the right for her work on the cap-and-trade bill that stalled in the Senate last year.
In recent months, Browner was rumored to be a candidate for the White House’s deputy chief of staff. But with climate legislation off the table and the resurgent Republicans in control of the House, she may have decided her job had run its course.
“Browner fought the good fight, but she represents the ‘regulate bad behaviors’ mindset that’s just not going to happen now,” Freed said. “The Obama administration is clearly taking the more optimistic path of investment as the catalyst for innovation.”
Browner has not said what she intends to do after leaving the White House. She told The Washington Post yesterday “it was just time to go,” adding that there was no backstory behind the decision.
Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said he would not read Browner’s departure as a policy decision. But it could help the White House in its efforts to reset relationships with industry groups, he said.
“If you lay a lot of things on top of one another, you see an increasing sensitivity in the White House to the impact that environmental regulations can have,” Segal said. “I don’t think Carol Browner would disagree that she has not always been associated with regulatory flexibility.”
In recent weeks, Obama has gotten support from big business for a new plan to weed out wasteful regulations and to intensify the administration’s review of new rules. Cass Sunstein, who oversees the review of new rules at the White House Office of Management and Budget, is slated to testify on the initiative tomorrow before a subpanel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Meanwhile, the president has picked former banking executive William Daley as his new chief of staff, giving industry a forceful advocate in the White House. And on the rulemaking front, EPA asked for more time to review several sets of controversial rules.
“We’re hoping that there’s going to be an emphasis on what the president said, meaning that regulations are reasonable,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.
“Carol Browner was very zealous in her views, maybe sometimes to the exclusion of considering the full picture, and we’re hoping that this means the whole big picture — jobs, the economy and health effects — are all going to be considered in the process.”
With another of the president’s key advisers gone, all eyes are looking to tonight’s State of the Union address for answers.
Environmental groups are hoping that Obama will reassert his commitment to environmental regulations, such as EPA’s climate rules. A little further down the road, it will be important to see how the president responds to Browner’s departure, Weiss said.
“For all we know, the White House may get rid of that office, which would be a very unfortunate signal, because it was very valuable to have her voice at the senior staff table,” Weiss said. “Hopefully, they will retain both the office and the stature of the person who sits there, but Carol Browner is going to be a very difficult act to follow.”