What does Carol Browner’s departure mean for green policies?

Carol Browner has been a polarising figure within the Obama administration. Environmentalists were delighted at her appointment, given her background in the EPA, where she was described as, “the greatest administrator [the] EPA has ever had,” by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta.

But Republicans were angry not just at her appointment, but the position itself and the authority it carried. Fred Upton, the new chair of the House energy committee, has recently suggested he would investigate her powers.

Green campaigners will be worried about the signal Browner’s departure sends, especially when they see quotes like this from one Democratic aide who worked on the doomed cap-and-trade legislation. That person told Politico, which broke the story:

This does strike me as a quiet kill, so to speak. If there were a sacrificial lamb, it could have been on health care, financial issues, on a whole number of other things. But it’s the climate tsar that’s going down.

I don’t know the exact circumstances of it, but the circumstantial evidence, I think the timing is frankly fairly frightening.

Clean Air Watch’s Frank O’Donnell echoed those concerns:

It’s certainly a big blow to the president’s image as a leader on health and the environment. Carol has been a resolute champion of the causes of dealing with the climate problem and other environmental issues. It looks like this is more of a turn against some of those policies and maybe part of the president’s overall strategy of not only seeming to be, but becoming more business friendly.

But a White House source moved to fend off such worries, telling Politico:

Carol is confident that the mission of her office will remain critical to the president, and she is pleased with what will be in the [State of the Union address] and in the budget [next month] on clean energy.

Somehow those words ring a little hollow, especially given how symbolically important the position is and how well-respected Browner was.

But the move may be more personal than policy-dictated. As long ago as May last year, the FT reported that Browner had felt personally bruised by Obama’s way of running the White House. A clue as to why comes from Ryan Lizza, in his definitive account of the failed attempt to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate:

For Obama, health care had become the legislation that stuck to the wall. As a consequence of the long debate over that issue, climate change became, according to a senior White House official, Obama’s “stepchild.” Carol Browner had just three aides working directly for her. “Hey, change the entire economy, and here are three staffers to do it!” a former Lieberman adviser noted bitterly.

He adds:

Browner was passionate about the issue, but she didn’t have much influence

Browner’s departure means that greens will be watching closely when Obama gives his state of the union adress on Tuesday night. Will he try to reassure the increasingly disgruntled right by focusing on pro-business issues, or will he look to settle the nerves of the green lobby?

One final thought – Browner may end up being known best for her central role in the response to the BP oil spill. That would be ironic, given what she said about deepwater drilling before the disaster. According to Ryan Lizza:

“Carol Browner says the fact of the matter is that the technology is so good that after Katrina there was less spillage from those platforms than the amount you spill in a year filling up your car with gasoline,” [a] White House official said. “So, given that, she says realistically you could expand offshore drilling.”

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