Carol Browner is leaving the administration and her office is losing its independence within the White House. Still, the beat goes on—albeit to a different tune.
Browner was President Obama’s top aide on climate and energy policy until she announced her resignation in late January. She is still active at the White House, but plans to leave later this month.
Browner’s deputy, Heather Zichal, now stands as the highest-ranking official in the White House devoted to energy and climate issues. Administration officials said this week they were bringing the energy office and the Office of Health Reform under the umbrella of the Domestic Policy Council, which is led by Melody Barnes. The staff of six remains the same.
Browner’s departure comes after the White House and the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation. Zichal and her staff will work on executing the goals Obama laid out in his State of the Union address, which are less ambitious than a comprehensive climate bill. To Zichal, the office shuffling should be seen as nothing more than that.
“Our office is transitioning to the Domestic Policy Council, and we’re maintaining staff, the same focus and mission that this office has had since the first day of the administration,” Zichal told National Journal Daily on Wednesday. “We’re very much looking forward to being a part of Melody’s team and continuing the important work to support American businesses, invest in clean energy, and create jobs.”
Environmental experts say moving the office into the DPC could help Zichal get more directly in the mix. But a long priority list in a broad agency like the DPC looms.
“Given all the budget woes and the focus on deficit reduction, I think this will be a lower priority than dealing with the deficit and focus on jobs,” said Dirk Forrister, a top climate official in the Clinton administration. “But I do think this plays into the jobs picture, because it is one of the biggest policy tools that they have to use on the jobs front.”
Zichal will work in a secondary capacity and report to Barnes and Gene Sperling, the new director of the National Economic Council. That won’t diminish Obama’s clean energy and climate goals, environmentalists insist.
“I imagine it will be like that,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We assume it will be and having her right there in the discussions will be extremely important.”
Zichal said she and her staff will focus on four key areas of Obama’s clean energy agenda he laid out in his State of the Union speech: electrifying vehicles, increasing support for clean energy research and development, moving toward a clean energy standard of 80 percent by 2035, and creating more incentives for energy-efficient buildings.
The White House will be forced to deal with another issue: the climate-change regulations that EPA is rolling out face universal GOP opposition and growing concerns among Democrats. Republicans in both chambers of Congress are introducing legislation today that would block the agency from implementing the rules. The regulations will eventually apply to all major stationary polluters like power plants, oil refineries, and manufacturing facilities. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has been pushing a measure that would delay the rules for two years. Just this week, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent a letter to Obama asking him to find a workable solution on the rules.
“We will obviously from a policy perspective look at those issues, yes,” Zichal said. “But in terms of how this all plays out I don’t want to speculate now where the Hill is headed. We will work to develop smart, sensible standards that protect public health while minimizing costs.”
Defending EPA’s authority to implement carbon rules and other Clean Air Act regulations is a primary concern for environmental groups that have worked with Zichal.
“The Clean Air Act is a top priority issue and that’s broader than energy and climate,” Beinecke said. “It needs to be a priority for the DPC.”
Critics of EPA’s carbon rules and of the administration’s clean energy agenda at large are (not surprisingly) more critical of Zichal’s new role and of the reshuffling.
“Zichal is not a decision-maker,” said GOP strategist Mike McKenna. “If there is any decision-maker left it’s probably [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson. She probably has the most amount of stroke to do or not do stuff.”
This article appears in the March 3, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.