Carol Browner remembers Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” as a trial by fire.
Browner, who was on the front lines during the Clinton years as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the effort under Gingrich to roll back regulations that Republicans viewed as burdensome was a “very difficult time.”
While the agency felt under siege, Browner said the standoff was valuable because it forced the EPA to get its message out.
“What that really forced us to do is articulate what we did for the American people, why EPA funding was important,” Browner said.
“So out of that really complicated time, we were able to fight off all limitations on the agency’s authority, and out of that then set the toughest smog and soot standards, the first very soot standard.”
After leaving the EPA, Browner worked with two ventures launched by former Clintonites: former Chief of Staff John Podesta’s Center for American Progress (CAP) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s international business consulting firm, which is now known as the Albright Stonebridge Group.
Browner returned to government service in 2009, when she became director of President Obama’s energy and climate change office. The role of “climate czar” put her in a leading role for another milestone: the creation of the first federal limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.
Still, the cause of tighter environmental controls suffered a major defeat during Obama’s first term, as the push for a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions crashed and burned in the Senate. The defeat forced the administration to overhaul its environmental agenda, with a renewed emphasis on regulatory actions that could be taken without Congress.
“What the administration deserves a lot of credit for is that we didn’t go, ‘We tried, Congress didn’t do it, so I guess we’ll have to wait for a more friendly Congress.’ We said, ‘OK, if that doesn’t work, we’ve got all these other tools,’ ” Browner said.
Browner left the Obama White House in 2011, much to the relief of critics of the administration’s policies.
“I would say that I’m happy to see her leave, only because she was so effective in advancing her side,” Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), who was the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement at the time of her 2011 departure. “Given her considerable knowledge and experience in navigating the bureaucracy, she will be irreplaceable.”
Browner returned to both the CAP and Albright Stonebridge Group after leaving the Obama White House in 2011. She now serves on the CAP’s board and is a senior distinguished fellow, leading the group’s environment and energy efforts.
“She’s unmatched in her understanding of the environmental and energy communities,” said CAP President Neera Tanden. “We have unprecedented insights from her on how to move policy.”
At Albright Stonebridge, Browner helps companies understand environmental rules, energy sources and other complex issues in markets around the world — a role that she excels at, according to the former secretary of State she works for.
“What is absolutely an honor and a pleasure is to be with her in public settings, where she has the capability of explaining the most complex issues to do with the environment,” Albright said. “She can put it into words that people can understand.”
Browner’s road to Washington began in southern Florida, where she attended high school during the political upheaval of the Vietnam War.
“My parents were college professors during the anti-war movement,” she said. “Being the traditional college professors, they were opposed and demonstrated against the war.”
Browner went to law school and found herself drawn to women’s issues, such as providing safe shelters for battered women and working with jailed pregnant women.
“I came to appreciate that doing it person-by-person, case-by-case probably wasn’t going to be fast enough for me, so maybe, I should get into policy and do it on a bigger scale,” she said.
Browner got a job as an attorney for the Florida Legislature, where she worked on environmental issues, and worked her way up to U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles’s (D-Fla.) office.
Chiles picked Browner to lead Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection when he was elected governor. After Hurricane Andrew pummeled the state in 1992, Browner met Bill Clinton for the first time when he visited as a presidential candidate.
“I did not meet him through Al Gore,” she said. “I met him through Lawton Chiles.”
Vice President-elect Gore brought Browner back to D.C. to lead his transition team, and Clinton chose her to lead the EPA. She stayed for eight years, and is still the longest-serving EPA administrator.
Browner’s time with Obama was shorter than her time with Clinton, though she also served on his transition team, starting in late 2008.
While she regrets that the cap-and-trade push didn’t succeed, Browner said the idea isn’t dead because states could create similar systems when the Obama administration issues new emission rules for power plants this year.
Still, she said a more flexible approach to reducing emissions, tailored to different industries, could yield the most success.
“I think what makes more sense where we are is a sector-by sector approach, and not necessarily using the same tool for each sector,” Browner said.
While power-generating companies might be open to cap and trade, the petroleum industry might work better with a carbon tax, she said.
“It’s different tools that achieve the same outcomes, but in a slightly different way.”
Between her work with the CAP and Albright Stonebridge, Browner squeezes in time to work on illegal fishing issues with the Global Ocean Commission. She pitches in with public education about nuclear power with Nuclear Matters and serves on the board of the League of Conservation Voters.
She’s also advised several energy startups, including Opower and Harvest Power.
“Watching something grow is a lot of fun for me,” Browner said of her work with startups.
When she wants to get away from it all, Browner heads to her 200-acre property in Vermont for some time in the great outdoors.
“I try to go there and work on my garden, snow-shoe and enjoy my solar panels,” she said.