Former energy czar speaks to skeptical audience in Southwest Michigan

April 14, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedCarol Browner: Wikimedia Commons It wasn’t the easiest audience she ever tried to convince about the efficacy of government standards and regulations, especially one in the heart of conservative, GOP southwestern Michigan, but the former “Energy Czar” is used to hotbeds of political controversy and she has overcome most of it to make a difference in America’s air and water quality.

Carol Browner, the former director of White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy for the Obama administration, spoke to a crowd of 800 at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan on Tuesday night. The talk was held at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor.

Her message was simple and direct: the United States should win the global race for clean energy.

“America has led the way in [automotive manufacturing], flight, moon landings and the Internet and because we have led, we have benefited more than anyone,” she said. “America deserves to win [this race].”

The demand for clean energy will increase by 50 percent increase over the next 20 years given present trends in world population growth, she said. A rising worldwide middle class, almost 5 billion by 2030 up from today’s 1 million, will also create the need for more energy consumption—as well as cleaner air and water.

China’s population of 1.4 billion is already looking at energy renewables such as wind turbines because there is an emerging sense that clean air and water is an important factor in achieving a quality of life.  Currently, air pollution from factory emissions, vehicle exhausts and cigarette smoke has become China’s biggest health threat with lung cancer and cardiovascular illnesses rising, according to Zhong Nanshan, the president of the China Medical Association.

The Chinese government is ordering stricter air pollution monitoring standards this year in the mega-cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin, 27 provincial capitals, and three key industrial belts: the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas, and Beijing’s hinterland. Another 113 cities must adopt new standards next year, and all but the smallest cities by 2015. 

Where all the clean energy will come from remains a mystery.

“The Chinese, Germans and others are investing like mad to be the nation that leads the world in global energy,” said Browner. “Meanwhile, we are bickering and polarized such that we can’t have a national conversation.”

Browner admitted that partisanship has greatly increased since she headed up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Clinton years (1993-2001), and consensus has been nearly impossible. Although she identifies herself as a Democrat, she believes that members of both parties can come together to do what Americans have done in the past: work toward the common goal. Today, we need to produce enough clean energy to meet growing needs, she said.

One of the ways to do this is to invent “smart appliances” that can monitor and provide information about energy usage so that users can command their greatest efficiencies.

“More information will allow people to make better decisions about their energy usage [for household appliances like refrigerators and heating/cooling systems],” she said.

If computers can track changes in airline ticket prices, she asked, why can’t they do the same for home appliances—and be hooked up to I-Phones?

The U.S. grid is so out-of-date Thomas Edison would recognize it, said Browner. She added that part of the problem is that regulations are now made on a state-by-state basis when an integrated system could provide greater feedback and coordination on energy usage—and reduce the enormous amount of energy leakage.

“We need national standards and regulations so that we can provide the certainty and predictability that business needs in order to invest and innovate” she said eschewing notions that government bureaucracy is always bad and especially bad for business.

American companies are building wind turbines in China and shipping them here because China has a predictable business climate.

“Why not build them here and ship them overseas?”

She pointed out that only 30 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards, which is a state policy that requires electricity providers to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy resources by a certain date.

If all the states did this, it would create greater certainty for business development, said Browner, who has a reputation as an environmentalist who worked well with the business community.

Standards can also lead to more innovation. In 1997 during her tenure as EPA chief, she helped pass highly contentious legislation that called for stringent tightening of the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards regarding permissible levels of the ground-level ozone that makes up smog and the fine airborne particulate matter that makes up soot.

The engine manufacturers resisted the standards but once the law was passed, they saw opportunities for innovation. Even the CEO of Cummins (diesel engines) admitted then that regulations can help get new products to market, she said.

Public/private partnerships can also be effective with government setting the goal and business figuring out how to meet it, she said.

Three years ago she was instrumental in negotiating fuel efficiency and the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles with the car companies.  The companies wanted only one standard and the government wanted to reduce greenhouse gases.  The result was an increase of $2.4 billion in car sales thanks to the new standard of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from 25 MPG.

What’s getting in the way of American business investment and innovation, however, is the fear of change, conflict over climate change science and distaste for government regulations and standards.

“We have to choose if we want the United States to be a leader and if we choose wisely, opportunities that we can’t now imagine can open up. This should be a time for opportunity and growth. Ingenuity and innovation have always kept us in the forefront.”

Browner provided the example of the kind of investment it takes. After the Civil War Southern railroad presidents decided to adopt the North’s standards for track gauges, which differed by a few inches. May 31, 1886 was the designated time to switch 12,000 miles of track. Workers pulled up spikes and moved the tracks according to Northern standards all in just two days. The cost was great but the benefit was that rail travel was seamless throughout the country and commerce greatly enhanced.

“This is not just about energy, but rather about economics and national security,” said Browner. “What it will take is making the right choices today for a good tomorrow.”

Biography of Carol Browner

Carol Browner was the longest serving administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency where she served for two terms of the Clinton presidency (1993-2001).  During her tenure, she reorganized the agency’s enforcement structure and oversaw two new programs designed to create flexible partnerships with industry as an alternative to traditional regulation. She started a successful program to deal with contaminated lands in urban areas. She also took the lead within the administration in defending existing environmental laws and budgets, and was the driving force behind a stringent tightening of air quality standards that led to a prolonged political and legal battle. 

During her tenure, Browner also began efforts to deal with global warming, giving the EPA authority to regulate carbon emissions causing climate change, although the EPA under the following George W. Bush administration chose not to use that authority.  Several other policies of hers were reversed in the Bush administration as well.

During her brief tenure “Energy Czar” in the Obama administration, she was a key negotiator between the administration and automakers in formulating the new United States emission standards in May 2009, and also was a member of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry that bailed out American automakers.  She successfully urged incorporation of tens of billions of dollars for renewable energy programs into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and was a central player in negotiations with Congress of the United States Carbon Cap and Trade Program.  She assumed a prominent role in the federal government’s response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which also became controversial because she was accused of misconstruing the findings of a federal scientific report by saying publicly that most of the oil was gone.

Environmentalists viewed her as a critical liaison to the White House, however, Republican members of Congress would consistently express concern that her access to the president had usurped power from other agencies since the appointment of czars were not subject to congressional confirmation.  She left her position in 2011 and the job itself was abolished by Congress shortly thereafter. 

Currently, Browner is Senior Counselor with the Albright Stonebridge Group whose responsibilities included providing strategic services to clients in assorted areas of environmental impact.

Tags: Energy Infrastructure, Energy Policy