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Overinterpreting Carol Browner’s Departure

by Michael Levi
January 25, 2011

News last night that energy czar Carol Browner will be leaving the Obama administration has been roundly interpreted as the death knell for serious climate policy. Politico reports several reactions: one environmentalist argues that it’s “a big blow to the president’s image as a leader on health and the environment,” while an industry lobbyist contends that “her departure may be part of a legitimate effort to pay careful attention to addressing some of the real regulatory obstacles in the way of job creation in the United States.” Joe Romm calls it “a bombshell,” while Chris Mooney says that “there’s no surer sign that nothing major is going to happen on global warming in the next two years.” The FT writes that “green campaigners will be worried about the signal Browner’s departure sends,” though it argues that “the move may be more personal than policy-dictated,” since “Browner had felt personally bruised by Obama’s way of running the White House.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “Eliminating Ms. Browner’s position would be another signal that the White House is giving up the effort [to pass a climate bill].”

Three things:

First, do people really need more evidence that cap-and-trade is dead? The House is controlled by Republicans who ran against the policy. Case closed.

Second, there is still a lot that could happen on energy and climate in the next two years. Policy on shale gas will have big consequences for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Offshore drilling regulation is still far from being fleshed out. There may be opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on nuclear power. If gas prices jump this summer, the White House will be scrambling for initiatives that appear to respond to the situation. These may not be the things that excite Carol Browner, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter.

Third, and most important, don’t underestimate the degree to which this is personal. The oil spill owned Browner’s life for several months. That came on the tail end of a long and intensive effort to pass climate legislation. She must be exhausted. Add to that the very public rumors of her potential elevation to White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and the now very public decision to go with someone else, and it isn’t hard to see why she concluded that it was time to leave.

The question now is whether she should be replaced. My gut instinct is that she shouldn’t be. There are plenty of talented people at the NEC, NSC, and CEQ working on energy and climate. It isn’t clear to me that having an energy czar added all that much coherence to their work. The only real case for keeping the position would be if it’s necessary to attract a particularly good person to the White House staff. I’m skeptical, though, that that will happen.

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