White House senior energy and climate adviser Carol Browner is leaving her position, an administration official confirmed late this evening.
Her departure leaves a void in what was once a cornerstone of President Obama’s policy agenda.
Obama campaigned on a promise of a transformational energy plan to cap fossil-fuel pollution, mandate an ambitious increase in renewable electricity, and pump $150 billion into clean-energy investment over a decade.
His creation of the office of an energy and climate czar to realize that vision won glowing praise from the environmental community and harsh slams from many critics.
Browner, who helmed the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration, is one of the most experienced energy and environment policy leaders in Washington.
But critics say she failed to effectively push Obama’s energy agenda on Capitol Hill. Although the House in 2009 passed a cap-and-trade bill, a similar effort died last summer in the Senate -- despite the constant work of Browner’s office to move the bill.
Some advocates of climate legislation on the Hill say Browner was unhappy because the Obama didn’t commit to the energy and climate agenda as he did to passing health care and financial reform legislation.
Browner was unavailable for comment.
Then-Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who was instrumental in negotiating the coal industry’s stake in the House climate bill, sang Browner’s praises late last year when reports of a possible exit started surfacing. But still, the administration was careful to stay out of the negotiating weeds, he added.
“Carol was aware of every step of those negotiations,” Boucher told National Journal late last year. “She encouraged them. The administration did not take a position on any of those issues and essentially left it to (then-House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman) Henry Waxman and me to work out those details.” He said if Browner left her post, it would not mean Obama is any less committed to his goal of combating climate change: “The president understands all of this, and I think it is his commitment that really matters and the commitment of someone in his administration.”
A White House official said Browner would stay long enough to ensure an orderly transition.
“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 (on Tuesday) and in the budget on clean energy,” said the official.
“She is proud of the administration’s accomplishments – from the historic investments in clean energy included in the Recovery Act to the national policy on vehicle efficiency that will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and lower consumers’ prices at the pump.
With the Republican-led House and more GOP members in the Senate, it has become clear that there is little chance of moving any piece of the original agenda. Republicans in Congress say they are focused on cutting government spending and rolling back regulations – an environment that would frustrate to someone in Browner’s position.
Instead of moving ambitious energy legislation, Democrats and the White House are on the defensive, hoping to hold the line on Republican attacks against EPA climate regulations and against efforts to slash the approximately $30 billion in clean energy spending from the 2009 stimulus law.
Industry lobbyists viewed the move as a sign that the White House is abandoning its energy agenda.
“Carol Browner was a passionate contributor to a strong White House commitment to environmental policy. 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,” said Scott Segal, a lobbyist for Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several oil and coal companies. “In the next year, the administration will evaluate a suite of regulatory proposals aimed at the power and refining sectors that may undermine reliability and affordability of power, and place millions of energy, refining and manufacturing jobs at competitive disadvantage. Infusing the White House with some new and fresh viewpoints makes sense.”
Advocates of energy and climate policy say that the timing of Browner’s exit, coming the night before the State of the Union, seems to signal that the robust -- but controversial -- environmental agenda once promised by Obama is being cast aside in a move toward the center ahead of the 2012 elections.
Said a senior House Democratic aide involved in the energy and climate negotiations: “Part of this election was at least a certain segment of the voting public saying, `Mr. President, we’re not so sure about your friends.’ So the night before the State of the Union, when the president is trying to patch it up with some of the American people, the coincidence of saying, `This is one of the friends that I’m going to jettison’ ... I don’t think anyone could define this kind of announcement on the eve of the State of the Union as a quiet breakup. ... This is about creating a second chapter. They could have chosen someone who dealt with health care or financial reform as a sacrificial lamb, but this is what they chose.
“This is very much like the second chapter fo the Clinton presidency,” the aide said. “The parallels here are striking. The only thing that distinguishes the two is that we got health care done. You have a national tragedy, new centrist move, the House reservations on energy, economic recovery starting.”
Amy Harder contributed. contributed to this article.