During the first seven months of the Obama presidency, the administration charted a new course for a green economy. It approved a stimulus package with roughly $50 billion for renewable energy and environmental projects while devoting other funds to everything from Cash for Clunkers to improving energy efficiency in the homes of Native Americans. So, who is behind the White House's environmental efforts?
The League of Conservation Voters calls them President Obama's "Green Dream Team": Carol Browner, the White House climate czar; Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator; Ken Salazar, U.S. secretary of the interior; and Steven Chu, U.S. secretary of energy. These men and women have the ear of the president, as well as the power, budget, and commitment to right what many environmentalists see as the wrongdoing of the Bush administration. This fall they will try to pass landmark climate-change legislation in the Senate; approve and oversee countless projects funded with stimulus money and push for international standards for carbon emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. They've been lauded by green advocates and lobbyists and pilloried by Republicans and moderate Democrats (particularly from states where industries such as coal still dominate). Whatever your feelings may be about their agenda, one thing is certain: they've only just begun.
Carol Browner keeps the lowest public profile of the foursome but arguably has attracted the most criticism. She's the first-ever White House czar on climate change, a position that some conservatives say is too vaguely defined. Yet, she's hardly new to Washington. She served as the EPA administrator under President Clinton, worked as Sen. Al Gore's legislative director, and remains close to John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff who ran the Obama transition team. Originally, she supported Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination. But thanks to Podesta, she ended up on Obama's original tight-knit transition team and never left that fold.
She has always been viewed as a staunch environmentalist who once called President George W. Bush the "worst environmental administrator ever". Critics argue this makes her a poor ambassador to Republicans and moderates in Congress. This question of whether Browner can build consensus will be crucial in the coming months. She's the administration's go-to arm twister: the person who wooed House members and counted votes to narrowly pass the climate-change bill on June 26 in the House, 219 to 212. Her goal is to get multiple federal agencies working together, rather than independently of each other—which has historically been the case in D.C. One success story so far is how Browner helped to broker a partnership between the EPA and Department of Transportation to come up with new fuel-efficiency standards that will require cars made in 2012 and beyond to ultimately get at least 35.5 miles per gallon. And, in the fall, all eyes will be on her to push the climate-change legislation through the Senate: a topic she didn't want to broach on the record. Through a White House spokesman, Browner said in an e-mail: "As we continue our dialogue with the Senate, we are confident that most senators share the president's goal of providing clean energy incentives that will wean the U.S. off of our dependence on foreign oil by transforming our energy economy."
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is another Washington insider, who spent four years in the Senate representing Colorado. Salazar originally raised his national profile by working with Republicans on the immigration bill, but he's studied energy and environmental policy for years. He's also worked as Colorado's attorney general and as the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Still, he's not a total tree-hugger; his family background in farming and ranching gives him some street cred in those industries.
Salazar speaks in a low-key, friendly style—an attitude that can belie the complexity of some of his initiatives, such as renewable-energy projects, particularly solar. His agency hopes to set aside tracts of public land in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Wyoming for solar energy facilities. "On the renewable-energy front, I don't think there's much more that we could be doing," he says.
Salazar arrived at the sprawling Department of Interior, in part, because he grew up in the West (an informal prerequisite for past secretaries). His appointment initially bothered some environmentalists who questioned what they saw as his close ties to the ranching and mining industry. But heading up an agency that has a $17.2 billion budget and that oversees 500 million acres of land isn't a job that everyone wants—particularly since the department historically has been fraught with scandals.
Like Salazar, Lisa Jackson oversees a huge, complex agency at the EPA. Her reputation was built on her ability to navigate bureaucracies as well as her pragmatic and direct attitude. She worked for the EPA for 16 years in both Washington and New York before taking a post in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, where she eventually rose to commissioner. There, she was known for setting up standards to reduce the state's greenhouse—gas emissions (a foreshadowing of the fuel efficiency standards that her agency and the Department of Transportation worked on this spring). Some environmentalists in New Jersey, though, were critical of the way she oversaw the state's constellation of Superfund sites, arguing that she was too close to the industries and companies that caused the pollution. So far, as the EPA administrator, she's received praise for diplomatically and strategically tackling problems from fuel efficiency to stricter rules surrounding the protection of endangered animals. Moving forward, she says the EPA will need to spend an "awful lot of time" monitoring the spending of the stimulus money. "If states don't spend the money, we'll move it," she says.
Secretary of Energy Chu was President Obama's wildcard pick—the first Nobel prize-winner in physics to occupy the top energy slot. Chu is a passionate scientist who views global warming as the most pressing concern of the day, but he admits that he's no bureaucrat. Early on, he ran into trouble when he talked off-the-cuff about OPEC production and oil prices without, he says, fully understanding the issue. Even now he's not the master schmoozer, but he has the respect of the country's scientific community who is grateful to have one of their own in office.
In the coming years, Chu will oversee the $39 billion that the stimulus has added to his department's budget. Even if he's not the one personally lobbying senators to support the climate-change bill, Chu loves to talk about global warming. He can't help himself. "We have door No. 1 and door No. 2," he says. "We're going to save the planet, or we're going to wish things were the way they were."
This eclectic group—with all of their expertise in science, energy policy, and advocacy—still can't be shielded from the skepticism and quandaries that will inevitably arise over the next three and half years. Among the challenges: when Congress returns from its August recess, it will deal with a mountain of competing agendas including passing health-care reform. It's possible that one of the president's key projects, the climate-change bill, could morph into an overlooked stepchild, as many conservatives hope it will become. "They had to pay off everybody to get it out of the House," says Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "There's negative momentum coming out of that."
If the Senate does not pass the bill, its death could have a domino effect, and slow movement on global environmental policy. It will be hard to negotiate carbon-emission standards at the December meeting in Denmark if the U.S. government can't pass stricter policies on its own turf. "Copenhagen will either be a milestone or a tombstone," says William Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution.
Members of the cabinet admit to feeling the heat. They all want to pass the bill, but they also need to work on conservation projects and push the economy in the direction of green technology. Already, there's pressure to act faster. Much of the stimulus still hasn't been doled out, and those green jobs? Well, there's money for them but the actual jobs don't yet exist. And, of course, there's doling out of the stimulus money. "They need to ensure the stimulus money is well spent," says William Reilly, a former EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush. "It'll be very challenging to get the funds out responsibly in the time frame that they promised—and make sure there are no embarrassments a year or two down the road."
This is a huge to-do list for a crew that took office less than a year ago and who are still hiring their staffs. Even fans say they may have expected too much, too soon. "I think they're doing pretty well," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "But then again, I've been around D.C. for a long time." And, it's only time that will be the true measure of their success. The question now: can they sustain the political capital, goodwill, and momentum of these first several months?