James A. Finley/AP
Carol Browner

“Energy Czar” Makes Statement About Obama’s Future Energy Policy

December 12, 2008 02:34 PM
by Josh Katz
Carol Browner’s apparent new job extends the trend of coordinating government efforts across agencies, and demonstrates the difficult task awaiting Obama’s energy team.

Browner to Tackle Energy Policy Across Government

On Wednesday, Obama aides said that Carol Browner will become the new administration’s energy czar, The New York Times reports. They also indicated that Obama will soon formally choose Steven Chu as secretary of energy, Lisa P. Jackson as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Nancy Sutley as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Although the responsibilities of the energy czar are still under discussion, “the Obama administration sees a challenge in coordinating all the federal agencies that have a hand in energy policy, including the Department of Transportation, which sets fuel economy standards; the Department of the Interior, which grants permits for oil and gas drilling on federal land; the EPA, which regulates air and water quality; the Department of Commerce, which develops infrastructure to promote economic growth and sustainable development; and of course the Department of Energy,” according to Eoin O’Carroll in The Christian Science Monitor’s “bright green blog.”

“Czars” are nothing new in American politics, despite the title’s undertones of Russian autocracy, O’Carroll notes. President Lyndon Johnson had a “poverty czar” in 1964, President Ronald Reagan chose a “drug czar” in 1982, President Bill Clinton selected a “terrorism czar” in 1998, and President George W. Bush appointed a “war czar” in 2007. The most recent automaker bailout plan, which was rejected by the Senate, called for a “car czar” to oversee how the companies would implement their federal loans.

Similar White House councils have played a significant part in American politics. The National Security Council was established in 1947 to coordinate foreign and defense policies, and the National Economic Council was created in 1993 to synchronize the government’s economic efforts, Bloomberg writes.

And as far as the cross-agency coordination is concerned, President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security to synchronize terrorism and security intelligence under one agency after the balkanized work of agencies like the CIA, NSA and FBI were blamed for some of the lapses of Sept. 11, 2001.

Browner will be entrusted with coordinating environmental and energy efforts throughout the government, according to Bloomberg. But on Dec. 1, Browner explained that the responsibilities of the secretaries of Energy and Interior or the EPA administrator would remain the same despite the newly created czar position.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said the benefits of the new position for government policy are ambiguous at the moment. “If it becomes one more layer in the overall bureaucracy to where it delays decision-making, then it’s a negative,” Gerard said. “If they focus it like a laser, give it authority to span the organization, sometimes it can move a policy more quickly,” according to Bloomberg.

Karen Harbert, executive vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, suggested that the government needs the unification provided by such a czar. “You need an entity that has the ability to lead across the entire energy policy landscape and coordinate a more comprehensive approach,” she said.

Browner served as President Clinton’s EPA administrator; her eight-year tenure in that post is the longest in the position’s history. She is currently on the board of the Audubon Society, the League of Conservation Voters and the Alliance for Climate Protection. Browner has worked for Obama’s EPA transition team. She has a law degree from the University of Florida, her home state.

Her policies on energy reflect those of Obama, and she has lambasted the actions of the Bush presidency, which she has called “the worst environmental administration ever,” the Times reports.

Background: Obama’s energy team has daunting task

Environmental and industry groups largely commended Obama’s energy and environmental team on Thursday, USA Today reports.

“This is clearly a green dream team,” said Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group. “These people have shown they can get the job done.”

But not all observers were so complimentary. “Carol Browner is a bad choice,” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “She worked for Al Gore and shares many of his wildest opinions.”

Obama’s energy plan calls for the government to spend $150 billion over 10 years to diminish greenhouse gas emissions and develop a “green” energy economy to produce more jobs, Bloomberg reports.

Obama’s team demonstrates the president-elect’s commitment to battling climate change and advocating alternative energy, according to The Wall Street Journal. But the president’s task and that of his administration will not be easy, thanks in large part to low gasoline prices. Experts believe the prices will stay low until the economy improves.

Steven Chu, Obama’s new energy secretary, has expressed a desire to bump up gas prices to spark development of alternate energy, but Obama has disagreed with using such a strategy during the current weak economy.

Browner may also clash with Obama’s choice for National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones. Jones favors efforts to broaden offshore drilling, while Browner believes the threats to the environment are not worth the limited gains in oil and natural gas.

Browner has also antagonized automakers and industrial leaders in the past. She has pressed the EPA to consider greenhouse gases a threat to public health, which would prompt federal regulation under the Clean Air Act. Prominent business groups object to such regulation, arguing that “it will lead to a cascade of costly mandates covering bakeries, breweries, schools and many other relatively small emitters,” according to the Journal.

Another obstacle for the Obama administration is the “government’s unwieldy energy bureaucracy.” The Department of Energy, for example, “has little power to set energy strategy,” and its “budget for research and development has become increasingly balkanized,” the Journal writes.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines