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Obama’s Climate-Change Adviser Browner Leaves as Agenda Stalls

Carol Browner
Carol Browner, seen here as director of the U.S. Office of Energy and Climate Policy. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Carol Browner’s departure as the White House’s top adviser on climate change reflects President Barack Obama’s limited ability to push his clean-energy agenda through Congress, former Obama aide John Podesta said.

“It’s a recognition of a certain reality,” Podesta, who managed Obama’s transition team and pushed for Browner’s appointment, said in an interview today. Browner realized the chance to pass legislation curbing carbon emissions was “in the last Congress,” he said.

Browner’s plan to leave was confirmed today by Nancy Sutley, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. While Browner, 55, won the auto industry’s acceptance of tighter tailpipe emissions standards, legislation to impose cap-and-trade restrictions on carbon emissions failed in the Senate after passing the House.

“There was a feeling it was time to move on,” Podesta, who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, said in an interview today. “It’s a loss. I hate to see her go.”

The administration hasn’t decided whether Browner will be replaced or her job eliminated, Sutley told reporters at an energy conference in Washington today.

“Carol has been a tremendous colleague” Sutley said. “She’s very valued at the White House.”

Browner’s critics said her resignation may signal the administration’s intention to scale back environmental regulations such as the EPA’s new greenhouse-gas regulations. The rules, which took effect Jan. 2, are opposed by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who say the limits will burden businesses and hurt the economy.

Job-Creation Obstacles

“Her departure may be part of a legitimate effort to pay careful attention to addressing some of the real regulatory obstacles in the way of job creation in the U.S.,” Scott Segal, a lawyer in the Washington office of Bracewell & Giuliani LLP who lobbies for utilities such as Southern Co., said in a e-mailed statement yesterday.

Browner’s departure doesn’t lessen the administration’s commitment on the environment, Podesta said.

“Polluters see this as an opening,” said Podesta, president of the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a public policy group that advises Democrats. “There’s no opening.”

Obama ran for president on a pledge to push for cap-and-trade, a carbon emissions-trading system that would let companies buy and sell a shrinking pool of permits to pollute. In November, a day after the midterm elections that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and increased their number in the Senate, Obama said cap-and-trade legislation probably wouldn’t be possible until at least 2013.

‘Just One Way’

Obama said cap-and-trade was “just one way of skinning the cat” and he would be “looking for other means to address this problem.” The president has yet to spell out such a new approach.

Browner is the latest senior administration member to depart two years into Obama’s presidency. Obama is scheduled to give his State of the Union address to Congress tonight.

Earlier this month Obama named a new chief of staff, William Daley, and he has replaced his senior economic advisers and budget director.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has also said he will leave the administration in the coming weeks.

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