Carol Browner (JD 79) discusses energy, global warming and the environment

Carol M. Browner (JD 79) was chief environmental regulator in Florida before joining the Clinton administration where she held the post of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director. During the first two years of the Obama administration Browner was assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. She is currently senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Browner answered, via email, questions put to her by UF LAW about the current state of environmental regulations.

There is ever-greater attention to the threat of global warming, the degradation of Florida springs and other waterways such as the Elk River in West Virginia. Meanwhile, America’s energy sector is growing and expanding with industries like solar power driven by technology and fracking, which raises its own environmental concerns. In light of these cross currents, what changes do you foresee in terms of regulation?

The West Virginia chemical spill demonstrated that though we have come a long way since the 1960s to clean our air and water, our communities still need an environmental cop on the beat to protect them from dangerous pollution. EPA and state environmental protection agencies must rely on the best available science to set new safety standards to keep our children and communities healthy and they must enforce those standards. Authorities knew little about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) that spilled into the Elk River at the time of the accident. As our energy needs expand, and new technologies are developed to address the needs of our communities, EPA and other oversight agencies must have all the technical information available to fully address accidents and spills.

For example, natural gas has changed the American energy landscape and made us more energy independent.  Fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from the ground, should be done in accordance with strong public health standards that protect our natural resources and provide uniform certainty for industry.  Right now, states have the authority to oversee fracking. This means that companies could potentially have to comply with 20 to 30 different state requirements for fracking. Why not set a national standard based on the best available science and technology, and delegate the day to day oversight to individual states who have adequate capacity and capability?

What is the most pressing environmental regulatory issue today? What policies would you like to see pursued? What areas has the Obama administration done well in terms of environmental regulation? What poorly?

Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest economic, development, and environmental and health challenge of our time.  The recent IPCC and NCA reports have left no doubt that climate change will drastically alter our future if we don’t take action to reduce carbon pollution.  We have a moral obligation to reduce carbon pollution to protect future generations from more frequent and extreme weather events and long-term crippling impacts like drought and changes in global ocean temperature.

President Obama has a strong record of protecting our air and cutting the pollution that fuels climate change. The President’s historic Climate Action Plan uses the existing authority in the Clean Air Act to drastically cut harmful carbon pollution from the transportation sector and power plants. During my time as the Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, I coordinated across states and industries to ensure the new automotive fuel economy standards will hit 54.5 mpg by 2025.  Over the life of the program, the standards will save consumers $1.7 trillion, save 12 billion barrels of oil, and eliminate 6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution from tailpipes. The subsequent rounds of transportation standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and the carbon pollution standards will bring vehicle emissions down even further.

The most important federal safeguard with regard to climate change is the expected EPA standard to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants. These plants account for nearly forty percent of the domestic carbon pollution that fuels climate change. When paired with the energy efficiency, renewable energy production and adaptation elements in the President’s Climate Action Plan, this standard will be critical to achieving real and sustained carbon pollution reductions.

President Obama has also pushed for $90 billion in clean energy grants, loans and tax incentives for renewable energy, energy efficiency and research. And, he pushed for investments in clean energy research, development and deployment with $17 billion supporting innovation in efficiency and renewables through the ARPA-E program. Together with the Climate Action Plan, these investments put the United States on track to meet its international pledge to reduce emissions by 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020.

How do we balance the need for a thriving economy with environmental protection?

We don’t need to choose between protecting the environment and growing the economy. In fact, protecting the environment will ensure economic prosperity in the decades to come. Take the economic toll that extreme weather had in the United States in the past few years. In 2013 alone, the United States had 60 major presidential disaster declarations, nine extreme weather events that each inflicted at least $1 billion in damage, and $20 billion in economic losses in 44 states caused by just these nine events.  Between 2011 and 2013, that brings the total extreme weather cost for the 34 most severe weather events to $208 billion.  Wildfires, droughts, and storms force stores and small businesses to shut their doors, children to miss school, and the economy to take a big hit.

When I served as EPA administrator, many industries opposed strengthening public health protections based on their overly pessimistic economic projections about the cost. When we proposed eliminating soot from diesel engines, companies balked, except for one who saw the opportunity to become best in its class.

The CEO of Cummins Engines said: “Regulations can help make sure innovations get to the market.  When our engineers are challenged with tough, long-term performance standards, they know how to orient their research. As CEO, I know that meeting or beating these standards gives Cummins a market advantage. And when we deliver cleaner, more efficient engines than our competitors, our company prospers.” Today Cummins is a leader in clean diesel engine design. An EPA analysis of the 1990 Clean Air Act found that the economic benefits outweighed the costs by 20 to 1 between 1990 and 2010.