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Browner Not Greener: The Decline and Fall of Environmental Policy

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President-elect Obama introduced his environmental team yesterday, and there were no surprises. Carol Browner will be White House coordinator and will oversee two of her former aides, Lisa P. Jackson, who will be the new EPA administrator, and Nancy Sutley, who will be Chairwoman of the Council of Environmental Quality.

The New York Times quotes Mr. Obama as saying, "This time must be different. We cannot accept complacency, nor accept any more broken promises." In light of that statement, let's review his choices:

Last week, The Times defined Carol Browner as "an acolyte of former Vice President Al Gore". She had served as the EPA Administrator under Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration paid little attention to environmental issues and accomplished less. The choice of Browner should alert readers to prepare for eight more years of environmental "politics as usual". The EPA does not seem high on Obama's radar screen.

First of all, the appointment of Browner breaks an Obama pre-election promise. As late as November 5th, Politico reported that David Axelrod had told George Stephanopoulos, "No one whose an active lobbyist, no one whose been lobbying on issues for the last two years related to their industries is going to come into our administration and work on those."

Browner has spent the last eight years working with Madeline Albright in an international consulting business, and among her clients was the Dubai port company that tried to acquire the rights to manage American ports. The New York Times reported on Friday that, "In February 2006, Ms. Browner and a lobbyist for the Dubai company met with the staff of Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and a vocal opponent of the deal." Browner's third husband, Tom Downey, a former New York Congressman, also lobbies for Dubai as the chairman of the Downey McGraw Group, another lobbying company. Schumer has reported that he was not impressed. It would take an awful lot of pussy-footing to dance around Dubai's participation in the energy industry, and Browner should be disqualified on those grounds alone.

"Okay", you say, "pre-election promises are made to be broken." So let's look at her record as an environmentalist. Her EPA biography indicates that she boasts more than she accomplishes. It claims that, "Browner was the chief negotiator for the state of Florida in a suit filed by the Federal Government to restore the Everglades by purifying and restoring the natural water flow to Everglades National Park. This was considered the largest ecological restoration effort ever undertaken in the United States..." What she really did was oppose a federal lawsuit ordering the state to limit pollution in the Everglades until her boss, Governor Lawton Chiles, stood up in court and said, "We want to surrender." She then participated in negotiations that set strict limits on pollution. Sounds good, right? It never came to pass.

The big sugar companies fought the strict limits for years, and the Everglades were as polluted as ever. Finally in 1993, the Clinton Administration's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proposed a much weakened compromise and the lawsuit was settled. By then, Browner was gone from Florida and heading up the EPA, which failed to intervene in the case.

Under the compromised settlement, the Everglades remain an environmental disaster. As recently as this June, The New York Times reports that Florida Governor Charlie Crist offered $1.75 billion to buy one of the large sugar companies to "jump-start" the "environmental restoration of the Everglades". It's more than fifteen years since Browner took credit for her "role as a strong negotiator and as an environmental visionary", and the Everglades are still drying up; the water is still full of phosphorous.

At the EPA, Browner's history claims that she "took the toughest action in a generation to safeguard public health with updated standards to particulate matter (soot and ozone smog)." And The Times does credit her with setting "tough rules for permissible levels of ozone and fine particles of air pollution...The rules set standards that industry groups and scores of members of Congress said would be too costly to meet." President Clinton's advisors were worried of the political and economic costs of the regulations, but, to her credit, she fought the industry lobbyists and "eventually persuaded Bill Clinton to support her". The rules survived challenges from the courts and the Congress.

Not to belittle her actions, but rather to point out the lack of support that environmental concerns have suffered under the last two administrations; Ms. Browner was doing what the law demanded. EPA regulations require that government scientists reset air pollution standards every five years. Their decisions are reviewed by the Administrator, and Ms. Browner accepted them and fought for them. Under President Bush, pollution reports by scientists have often been modified or rejected and industry lobbyists often prevail.

On the other hand, when Browner and the Clinton administration packaged twenty-five reforms to streamline environmental regulation in March, 1995, they helped the lobbyists. In the environmental world, streamlining is the codeword for making it easier for industry to not report what it is doing.

Ms. Browner's EPA history also claims that she "has taken action against one of the nations most serious threats: global warming", that she set up "new partnerships with the automobile industry to produce cleaner cars." Fifteen years of the avalanche of Hummers, SUVs and pick-up trucks from her automobile partners demonstrate the effectiveness of that partnership.

She also "built partnerships with thousands of businesses and organizations to use energy more efficiently." The fact that her "partnerships" were voluntary is not mentioned in her EPA history. Neither is the result--the continuing increase in the tons of carbon dioxide displaced into the air over the past two decades. In spite of her Al Gore connections, her efforts to combat global warming seem minimal, and the results negligible.

My main excuse for the length of this essay is: I do know more about the EPA than what I read in the newspapers. Going all the way back to my UPI days, I have had an extremely reliable source as to the state and politics of the environment. So I will offer a little bit of "inside baseball"--a small administrative structural decision that Ms. Browner made after she took over the agency. The EPA had always had, directly under the administrator, a coordinator who monitored the activities of all its branches. The EPA has a research and development function that helps form overall policy. The EPA writes regulations that govern environmental policy. Other divisions enforce regulations regarding water pollution, air pollution, emergency response, toxic substances, solid waste, pesticides, drinking water, and, along with the USDA, agricultural biotechnology. Ms. Browner eliminated the coordinator who ensured that the various divisions worked as one, and took on that task herself.

In the real world- everyone wants to report directly to the boss. The same is true of government work. When Ms. Browner arrived at the EPA, the individual section heads convinced her that the coordinator got in their way, and she could coordinate the work of all the divisions. She obliged, and for the rest of her term inefficiency and confusion prevailed. In fact, the EPA functioned so badly that the Bush administration decided to continue the practice, and the EPA has functioned ineffectively ever since. The easiest environmental improvement that President-elect Obama might make is to restore that one position to the EPA.

But the EPA is really in need of major overhaul. The agency was created more than thirty years ago, and although technology has made major advances in the past thirty years, the regulations have basically remained the same. Two areas particularly cry out for change-- biotechnology and nanotechnology. Neither of those technologies, with their great benefits and still generally unknown dangers existed thirty years ago. The simplest example is nanotechnology--current regulations of pollution are based on size and number of polluting substances in a specific volume. Nano particles are so small and so many that current regulations are totally ineffective.

Finally, two of President-elect Obama's other appointments seem to have limited credentials for their new jobs. The proposed head of the EPA, Lisa P. Jackson, spent sixteen years in Washington and New York at the EPA where she was involved enforcing the federal toxic site superfund cleanup program. She later served as deputy director and acting director of the New York region's enforcement division. As Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, according to Wikipedia she once again "enforced cleanups in communities where the effects of pollution on public health had long been neglected." She has had much more experience in environmental enforcement than in policy or administration.

The proposed chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality also served under Browner. She was a Special Assistant to her in Washington in the late nineties. She is currently serving as Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment in Los Angeles. The LA Times quotes her as saying, "Pumping money into research is great...but until you give people a reason to jump from research to commercialization, they can spend years and years massaging the technology, trying to make it perfect." The CEQ was created, in part, to take a long term view on how to improve the environment. Ms. Sutley's quote would seem more appropriate coming from a private industry polluter than the head of an environmental think tank.

Obama's three environmental appointments seem to be based on their politics rather than their competence. Forsaking political correctness, I suggest that the Browner appointment will please Al Gore, while the Jackson appointment reaches out to black women, and Sutley, who served as a member of Hillary Clinton's California Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Steering Committee has special appeal to both that constituency and Hispanics. I am not shocked, but I am disappointed.

It used to be that political debts were paid off with Post Office appointments by the Postmaster General, who was the Cabinet official in charge of patronage. Given the three appointments reported above, I will go so far as to suggest that President-elect Obama may be using the EPA similarly, turning it into a dumping ground of political of patronage; of paying off individuals and groups that supported his election.

The environment does not seem to be a top priority for President-elect Obama, and given the tasks he's facing, that's probably appropriate. That makes even more important that those he appoints to environmental offices be knowledgeable, experienced, strong and competent. All who consider themselves "green" should take a hard look at Obama's appointments, particularly that of Carol Browner. Browner is not Greener.