Carol Browner is in a better place than she was a decade ago. Back in the '90s, Browner was the agitator on the ramparts, the true-blue protégé of Mr. Environment himself—Al Gore. From her perch at the Environmental Protection Agency down Pennsylvania Avenue, she battled with the economic mandarins of the Clinton Treasury Department—often unsuccessfully—and became the bane of America's utilities and smokestack industries. Even at the EPA, Browner was sometimes known by the Voldemort-ish moniker "She Who Must Be Obeyed."
Today Browner, 53, is trying to project a different image entirely. Brought into Barack Obama's inner circle as his "czarina" for energy and climate issues—a brand-new White House post—she is now mainly a back-room coordinator. To fulfill her boss's vision of a roaring green U.S. economy that marries environmental progress with industrial rebirth, Browner is trying to bring the cabinet agencies she once squabbled with—Energy, Transportation, EPA and so on—under one tent. Now her power lies mainly in persuasion—for example, encouraging Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist, and his team to supply new scientific and technological ideas for greening the economy. "They're much smarter at this than I am … What I can do as these things start to materialize is ask what are the ways we can bring them to market," she says in an interview, adding: "I don't have any independent policymaking authority. It's not like when I was at EPA and I could depend on regulation."
Browner is still pretty crunchy. Though she lives a mile from her office next to the White House, she walks to work every day (while managing to dress fashionably). But the infighting, Browner insists in an interview, is a thing of the past, not least because Obama doesn't tolerate it. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about am I in this meeting or am I not," she says. "That can destroy you in a place like this. I know what I think we need to accomplish for the president."
Looking at her now, tall, slender and still zealous in her cause, one has a sense that Browner is something of a lioness in spring, at ease with herself and savoring the landscape she now oversees. The issues she fought so hard to bring to public view in the '90s are now front and center, especially after eight years of relative inaction under George W. Bush, whose presidency Browner calls "the worst environmental administration ever." The dangers of global warming are a given. And while the Kyoto accord on reducing greenhouse gases is all but dead—having been unilaterally rejected by Bush—the administration plans to bring a far more activist approach than even Clinton to the next global climate conference, which takes place in Copenhagen in December. "There's been a tremendous evolution in terms of the green issues," Browner says. "Sixteen years ago, there was a lot of focus on conventional pollution issues"—in other words, cleaning up the old messes in the water and air and at Superfund sites. Now "there's much more focus on clean-energy opportunities" to move U.S. industry into a new era.
Most significant of all, perhaps, is that while Bill Clinton mouthed the right words about the environment, he didn't achieve all that much. One, he faced a recalcitrant GOP-controlled Congress. Clinton was also concerned about what restrictions on industry might do to his pride and joy, the thriving U.S. economy. Obama is, by all accounts, a true believer in the idea that good environmental policy is to a large extent the future of the U.S. economy, which needs something of a pick-me-up these days. Browner says a major source of America's next great growth spurt will be "green jobs and green technologies." Hence, Obama loaded even his temporary stimulus bill with almost $40 billion in grants and loan guarantees and renewable energy, as well as $11 billion for new transmission lines that will carry solar power and wind from places like Arizona and North Dakota to other states. Obama's 10-year budget proposal also contains nearly $75 billion to make tax cuts for energy research and experimentation permanent.
Browner's critics once called her a socialist. Now even some of those who once counted themselves as her adversaries in the early '90s, like Jim Rogers of Duke Energy—one of the nation's largest utilities—say they are impressed by her ability to grow and negotiate compromises with industry. "She's tough, but she's a lot more pragmatic than people give her credit for," he says.
Browner is appropriately ironic about her nickname from the Obama campaign: the czarina. ("The only problem is that there were no czarinas without czars in history," she jokes. "It was all courtesy of their husbands.") But she takes her coordinating role seriously. And she denies any suggestion that she is dominating policy. Her mandate, she says, is merely to encourage all "the cabinet departments and agencies to sort of work across the traditional boundaries." Browner says one of her main goals is to orchestrate a single national policy so that different government agencies aren't confusing industries and states by setting different policies. Example: DOT regulates autos, but so does EPA because of the 1990 Clean Air Act. "We don't want car companies saying, 'I have to do this for EPA and this for DOT'."
Her colleagues in the Obama Cabinet seem to have only nice things to say so far. "I give her very, very high marks," says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, who says he's been to six meetings chaired by Browner already. "She's very inclusive. She has really reached out and cast a very broad net." In other interviews with NEWSWEEK, Energy Secretary Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also praised Browner for her performance. "I'm very happy," says Chu. "She is really bringing various stakeholders into the same room and making sure these discussions are occurring."
There are, to be sure, some who complain they're not yet part of the discussion. Industry lobbyists remain wary that Obama and Browner are still slighting traditional energy sources such as oil, gas and nuclear, favoring renewables such as solar and wind (the exception is clean coal, a big Obama focus). Renewables, after all, will play only a small part in America's energy future for decades to come. "We have not seen any explicit policies that will accelerate the development of American oil and gas resources here at home," says Karen Harbert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She hopes the administration won't end up "picking winners and losers … What we want to see is a very open and transparent discussion with the private sector, on whose back the ultimate responsibility will fall for implementing the energy and environmental policies. It's very important that we have a permanent seat at the table."
Others, like Mike Morris, the CEO of American Electric Power in Ohio, say they've still got open mind about where Obama is going. "I would hope we've all grown since the '90s," he says, noting the utility industry too has learned that compliance with previous EPA regimes, like the Clean Air Act, "has not been as expensive as we feared it would be. Our company was one of those leading the just-say-no crowd 10 years ago. I hope Carol Browner and her team understand we're heading in the right direction."
One big test of that, Morris says, will be the outcome of the administration's cap-and-trade proposal for restricting pollutants by auctioning off all emissions nationwide. Under the plan, overpolluting companies whose emissions exceed the limit, or cap, buy "allowances" from companies that don't. But legislators from industrial states that rely heavily on coal power, like Indiana, say they'll be unfairly penalized by having to pay utilities that don't pollute as much in places like California, resulting in a huge jump in costs to their local consumers. Sensing a political storm, Obama recently indicated that he'd accommodate their concerns, possibly by rethinking how to distribute revenues.
Browner herself has been through this kind of controversy before, when the Clinton administration sought to tax BTUs, or heat content, penalizing consumers. It was a disaster that contributed to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. As a result, Rogers of Duke Energy says he thinks Browner and Obama—and Dems on Capitol Hill—will find a compromise. "She evolved during her time at EPA," he says. "At the end of the day we were able to reach a settlement with her" on a clean-coal plan that required Duke to spend $1.8 billion retrofitting its plants. (Rogers adds that that deal sat frozen for the past eight years because of "ideologues" in the Bush administration who didn't want to push EPA initiatives.) By several accounts, Browner has jumped into the middle of the cap-and-trade debate. "She's the central player in the administration," says Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, who heads a key subcommittee.
Quietly—they refuse to use their names—some critics chafe that the "new" Browner isn't so new. "She has very sharp elbows," complains one former environmental official in Washington who would talk about her approach only on condition of anonymity. He notes that a number of top Obama campaign advisers, some with technical expertise that neither Browner nor EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has, weren't asked to join the administration.
Browner and her defenders point out that they're only two months into this, after all. As a coordinator, not an agitator, Browner says, she now places a premium on building alliances: "I have to work with people." It's a new role for an old warrior.