Browner: White House Encouraged by Senate Climate, Energy Talks

Obama's climate czar is working toward a national energy policy.

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Carol Browner spearheads energy and climate policy at the White House, two issues that will surely dominate policymaking at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in the next few months. In an interview at the recent U.S.News & World Report National Issues Briefing "Going Green: America's Cities and the Role of Government," Browner spoke about the regulation of carbon, climate change, and the challenges of putting in place a national energy strategy. Excerpts:

The Senate is sitting on climate legislation; how does the White House nudge it forward?

We're very encouraged by the discussions that have been going on in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Bingaman has passed a bipartisan bill out of his committee with Sen. Lisa Murkowski and some other Republicans looking at part of what we think is important to comprehensive energy reform, and now you have the bipartisan group of Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham who have been working together with their colleagues to craft a comprehensive package, and I know they are hoping to make that public in the next several weeks. We're very, very encouraged by their discussions. We obviously are waiting to see the bill before we start taking positions on individual parts. It's still a conversation among senators. We have been providing extensive technical advice as they try and think through the component parts, and it is our hope that the Senate will act this year, and we're going to do everything in our power to support that and make that happen.

How does the president's leadership on issues like healthcare translate to energy? Is it a similar laid-back strategy, or do you see things moving more rapidly or more forcefully?

We've had several instances where the president has visited with members of Congress on this issue. Most recently, we had a bipartisan meeting of senators. I think we had 14 senators come and meet with the president for an hour, a very, very important meeting. And so, we will continue and he will continue to provide leadership, and we will work on a technical level to see what the details are.

Will that change once there is a bill from the Senate?

Once there is a bill, we're in a very different place. There isn't yet a draft bill, and we're hoping to see that very shortly, and then we will do everything, as I said, we can to get the right debate, to get the right law, and then move on to conference, and resolve the differences between the House and the Senate.

Polling suggests that people are less convinced of the immediacy of climate change. Do you see that as a problem, and has it changed the consensus for action?

We absolutely believe that climate change is a real and serious problem and one that needs to be addressed. But, as the president said in the State of the Union, even if you don't believe that, there is still ample reason to have a comprehensive energy strategy for this country.

Such as?

Right now, we are not at the forefront of the global race for clean energy, and the reason we're not leading that and China and India and Germany are moving ahead of us is because we haven't put in place the right domestic policies. In order for companies to make investments here in the United States in clean energy technology, they need to know there's going to be a market, there's going to be an opportunity for them to sell those technologies here. If we don't send the signals to the marketplace, then they're going to make the investment in other parts of the world, and, ultimately, we're going to be importing these clean energy technologies.

A crucial bloc in the Senate has always been coal-producing states. How do you bring them on board if you're going to set a price for carbon?

The coal industry and coal-fired utilities have done a lot of work to bring forward proposals. They are concerned that if there isn't national legislation, the EPA will have to use [its] existing authorities, and I think [EPA chief ] Lisa Jackson is doing everything in her power to use those authorities in a thoughtful manner. But they believe their ability to really manage a program will be better if there is a comprehensive program and a new program. They are advocates for a cap and having trading mechanisms because they think they can find the most cost-effective solutions.