Former Administrator Browner talks about direction of enviro policy after Clinton

Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner is a top critic of the Bush administration's environmental policies. She joins OnPoint to talk about her role in pushing President Clinton to implement tough standards during his administration, and how she feels things changed under Bush. Join OnPoint for an interesting discussion about the direction of EPA -- and how she feels about Bush's latest choice to head the agency.


Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&E studio is former U.S. EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who served during the Clinton administration for eight long years. Miss Browner thanks for being with us.

Carol Browner: Thank you for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: Good to see you. Let's start off with one of the most fast-moving pieces right now going on in Washington and that's the Clear Skies Initiative. It passed, I'm sorry it didn't pass --

Carol Browner: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: It ran into a 9-9 deadlock yesterday. Just give us your thoughts. Did the Clean Air Act, is it pretty much over do you think for the Bush administration?

Carol Browner: Well, it's hard to know. You can never say something's truly over in the United States Congress. I think this is a pretty important vote indicating that there really are a number of important people in the United States Senate who don't believe that we should be writing or rewriting the Clean Air Act or that we should be weakening it, quite frankly.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. There were a lot of issues that were debated during the markup. They talked about they didn't want to reverse pieces to the Clean Air Act from 1990. CO2 was on the table as well. Do you think that that debate was a nonstarter from the beginning with President Bush indicating where he was?

Carol Browner: Well it's always up to the White House to put their legislation out and to define what may or may not be acceptable, but it's also then the right of the Senate to engage in a robust debate and what we saw in this debate is there really is a growing number, a significant number of senators who believe it is time to do something to address greenhouse gases, to address global warming, to set some sort of parameters on carbon emissions. I think that if the bill ultimately is going to make any kind of progress in this Congress it will need to speak in some way to the issue of carbon.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Well let's put carbon aside for one second. Talk about your job, but the people who are now I guess, running EPA. Steven Johnson was nominated by President Bush earlier this month to be the new EPA administrator. You said in a Knight Ridder quote, I think, that you promoted him and you supported him. Tell us a little bit about Steven Johnson and also, do you think he's going to have an easy time moving through Senate confirmation?

Carol Browner: Well I'm not going to predict what the Senate might do. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of questions. I've known Steve, I knew him the whole eight years I was at EPA. I did promote him several times. I gave him very important jobs with very, very significant responsibilities. Probably the most important was the work that we started and did a great deal of in terms of banning pesticides and chemicals that are particularly dangerous to children. These were scientifically based decisions. They were important health decisions and I always found Steve to be exactly where I was. Let's look at the science. Let the science guide us and then let's make a decision that really protects the health of our children with a margin of safety. Let's not put our children's health at risk. Let's protect them. So if you asked me, I would define him as a true environmentalist, as green, as committed to the agenda that we moved on in the eight years that I was at EPA. I hope he continues to be that person.

Darren Samuelsohn: What kind of advice would you give him? I guess it's not just pesticides that he'll be in charge of at EPA, obviously, he's got a whole --

Carol Browner: He's got the whole agenda now.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Carol Browner: Some of the advice I would give him Steve clearly knows. He's been there for a long time. The people are great, they're simply great people and if you empower them to do their job, if you give them a vision of where you want to go, they're public servants in the best sense of a word and they will serve you well. I think the hardest thing for any EPA administrator, and it was true in my administration, when I served and in any administration at times, is your relationship with the White House. I was fortunate, I had a good relationship. I obviously had known Vice President Gore. I had once been his legislative director when he was a senator. I had a good relationship with President Clinton. And there were times, and this will come as no surprise, when many of the president's advisers were saying, no, don't let EPA toughen pollution standards. Don't let EPA set those soot and smog standards. What I was able to do, because of the relationship I had, was go directly to the president and say, you know, Mr. President, I know your advisers are telling you one thing and their responsibilities are different than mine, but from my perspective as the chief of public health in the environment on your behalf for the American people, here's my advice. Every time I went, the president supported my recommendations and I hope that Steve has that ability to get directly to the president and to make the case on behalf of the work that EPA is doing. I'll tell you something, when I first went to EPA I visited with every prior administrator. I took the time to have a personal meeting with each and every one of them, to sit down and get their best advice. It was the first administer of EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus, who gave me, I thought, some very important advice, which is make sure you have access to the president you serve because there will come a time when you need to go directly to the president and ask him to support your work. As we all know, Mr. Ruckelshaus was a Republican --

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Carol Browner: So that advice has been true in either a Democratic or a Republican administration. But it would be, I think, the single most important thing I would say to him.

Darren Samuelsohn: I kind of wanted to ask you about the EPA administrators. Do you guys have a secret handshake or do you go off to ecotourism --

Carol Browner: Well interestingly enough, the administrators who have followed me haven't chosen to seek my advice. I would have been happy to give it. I presume that is because we have a difference of opinion. We were very committed to strong enforcement of the law, to setting tougher standards, to fully implementing all of the environmental requirements. This administration has taken a different approach, a more laissez faire approach, a more pro-business approach.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk about Christie Whitman for a minute, who immediately followed you and was the first of three EPA administrators now, as Steve Johnson is confirmed. Her book that came out recently, It's My Party Too, we've gotten a lot of traction out of this book in terms of talking about things.

Carol Browner: I can't say I've read it.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Well, one of the first --

Carol Browner: Or even seen it for that matter. Maybe, I don't know, it's not in the bookstores I go to.

Darren Samuelsohn: We won't tell Christie Whitman that. One of the things that she writes about is influence from the White House, as you just said. It's something that you have to watch out for and she ran into it with CO2 right off at the bat.

Carol Browner: I think I'm actually saying a different thing though.

Darren Samuelsohn: Oh, yeah?

Carol Browner: As you describe it, and as I heard her say in some interviews, she was worried about the White House reaching into EPA and telling EPA what to do. That didn't happen in my experience, but what did happen is advisers to the president might take a different point of view. They didn't reach into the scientists, when I was at EPA, and tell them what to do. So what I would have to do is go straight to the president. If a White House adviser had been reaching into the EPA science and to the lawyers and telling them what to do, I would have immediately gone to the president and demand that it be stopped, instantly it'd be stopped.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's look at a couple of things from the Clinton administration that are still very much in play today. The first one I want to ask you about is mercury. Right now EPA is set to release a mercury standard here coming up. One of the main arguments that is made by the Bush administration today is that they're the first administration ever to set a mercury standard. I know you --

Carol Browner: It's not true, that's lying.

Darren Samuelsohn: -- know the issue very well. You guys put out a regulatory determination, said you have to regulate mercury through a MACT standard, but you didn't actually release a MACT standard --

Carol Browner: Well, let's back up in time.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Carol Browner: I was there for eight years. I come from Florida where I was very familiar with the mercury problem. It was an issue we had already started to think about in Florida. The science was emerging. Long before we focused on power plants at EPA I set a mercury standard on hospital incinerators and hazardous waste incinerators. So to in any way suggest that we hadn't started the process of addressing mercury would simply be wrong. There were two rules on the books that I signed that are being implemented and I think the level of reductions are in excess of 90 percent. Now obviously coal-fired power plants are a major source, the other two are significant, but coal-fired are also very important. One of the things that the law required was first a determination. Is it toxin? Is it a neurotoxin? Once you make that determination than you follow a path, the path you follow in the Clean Air Act is really dictated and it requires that you look at available technology. See what's out in the world. We traveled, we had people travel to Europe to actually see the best technologies and then set a standard based on those technologies. But the first decision, and it came as part of a whole history of decisions I had made on mercury, was the issue of, is this a neurotoxin? The National Academy of Sciences is absolutely clear about this. There is no gray in terms of the scientific community. This is a neurotoxin. I think, unfortunately, this administration doesn't share that belief. They've certainly reopened that decision. The consequence, if they decide it isn't a neurotoxin under the Clean Air Act, will be more mercury in our communities for many more years than any community has the right to experience.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you wish you had finalized a standard though before you left office? And another question, and people are saying, is had you done something final on mercury it would've had a significant cost on the environment which probably, maybe wouldn't have looked good for Al Gore as he was running for president in 2000.

Carol Browner: Well, first of all I want to be clear. Al Gore supported every single decision I ever made when I was at EPA, before he was running and while he was running. Never, ever once did his campaign staff say, "Gee, don't make a decision." You know the regulatory process, and you're a real student of it, is one that follows a rigorous step-by-step procedure. It's important to the integrity of the EPA that those processes be adhered to. You take public comment. You put information out into the public domain. You review it with the science community. We were doing all of those things and the next step, had there been another four years, if Mr. Gore had been elected I'm sure he would have continued the work on mercury, would have been that standard. But to suggest because we were in the process and we didn't somehow or another jump the process to make a decision, that this wasn't important, is dead wrong.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Carol Browner: Particularly when you look at the fact that beginning almost from the first months I was at EPA we were, in fact, working on mercury.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's jump to one of the other issues in the clean air debate, CO2, as you mentioned before. You went to Kyoto. You signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Carol Browner: I actually didn't go.

Darren Samuelsohn: Not you, but Vice President Gore.

Carol Browner: He did go.

Darren Samuelsohn: He did go?

Carol Browner: Um-hmm.

Darren Samuelsohn: You came back, actually before Senator Gore or Vice President Gore, excuse me, signed Kyoto there was the 95-0 vote in the Senate. I'm wondering though, why didn't the Clinton administration put forward a mandatory CO2 bill in its eight years in office and set the tone for the debate? I know you had voluntary, or you had principles for CO2, and you had voluntary controls. I think you guys said you prevented the release of 60 million tons of CO2 in 1997, saving businesses and consumers $1 billion, but why not actually go to the next step?

Carol Browner: Well, I think, it's important, first of all, to look at Kyoto and what the president, President Clinton and Vice President Gore both said about Kyoto, which is it's an important agreement, but it's not a perfect agreement. I think the Senate vote that you referred to wasn't an up-or-down vote on Kyoto. It was a sense of where the Senate was. It was a signal back to the administration, to the American people at large, look, this isn't a perfect agreement. There are some things that will need to be changed. The administration I served in was committed to finding those changes, to taking those steps. At the same time, to looking at what could be done domestically. You know times change and they've certainly changed a lot with respect to this issue. One of the solutions that the Clinton-Gore administration supported when it came to a global carbon reduction was an emissions credit trading program, a cap-and-trade program. Similar to the program that we developed when I was at EPA for acid rain or SO2. Much of the world didn't support that. It was an uphill battle in the negotiations. Interestingly, Europe has just completed the plans for such a program, and I've talked to any number of American companies who will now be under a cap in a trading system because they have operations in Europe who are increasingly bringing a voice to the fact that they want a system in the United States because the more facilities, as we all know, in a trading system the greater the efficiencies. So I think we may be reaching a point where, despite whoever's in the White House, someone who believes in it or someone who doesn't, that you're going to see a coalition of interests between the environmental community, the public health community and leading businesses all saying it's time to take a real step. I was curious to read in The Wall Street Journal, just a few weeks ago, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska saying something along the lines of, you know, I can't continue to ignore it.

Darren Samuelsohn: He didn't commit to it though.

Carol Browner: But when I look around my state I see some things that are happening and then I think Senator Lisa Murkowski joined him. So any issue of this breadth takes some time to be digested both by the political leadership and by the public, but I think we're making real progress. I think it is very likely within the next several years we will see a significant step. Will it be as much as some of my friends in the environmental community might like? Perhaps not. Will it be more than some in the business community might like? Perhaps, but nevertheless a step and it will signal to the world and to the country that the United States is committed.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's look at another thing that happened during the Clinton administration. That was the setting of the national air-quality standards for fine particulate matter and ozone. They have been designated now. Counties around the country, more than 500, are in nonattainment and they have to comply and they have about another decade to do that and the debate over Clear Skies and now CAIR as well comes into play here. I'm curious, do you think it has moved as fast as when you enacted it in '97? Then also, the Bush administration has some deadlines and they actually have to decide if they should be strengthened. Do you think they should be strengthened?

Carol Browner: Well let's take them separately, because they're really very, very different. The ozone or the smog standard that we set was built on many years of work in this country to reduce smog and to reduce the pollutants that cause smog. There we continue to make progress. Obviously, given the effects of smog, particularly on asthmatic children, I would like to see it move more quickly, but we do continue. And CAIR, I'm hoping, will be an important next step in that process. I would have gone faster. I probably would have gone further, but nevertheless I think it could be an important next step. In terms of fine particles, I set the first ever fine particle standard. The science was quite dramatic. Since I set that, almost, what, seven years now?

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.

Carol Browner: It has gotten even clearer that fine particles become embedded in, particularly older Americans lungs and contribute, and can contribute to premature death, heart disease, bronchitis, other respiratory illness. This is a serious problem. After we set that public health standard we took a series of steps. We issued guidelines for diesel engines, for tractor-trailers, for school buses, desulfurized diesel fuel, when you take the sulfur or largely take the sulfur out the diesel fuel, it's going to be a much cleaner fuel. In the next few years that experience of sitting behind that dirty school bus or that tractor-trailer and it's belching black smoke will begin to change. Having said that, I think there probably is enough science now to go even further, to set an even tougher standard, but it shouldn't come at the expense of delaying other work that can be done, beyond the diesel requirements that I put in place, to get fewer particles in the air. It wouldn't be fair, particularly to older Americans, if we were to say we're not going to give you any more public health protection because we're going to get to a tougher place. Well for some of those people another five or six year delay can mean the difference in a shortened life.

Darren Samuelsohn: Jumping to the presidential election from 2004. It wasn't a very hotly debated subject except for once in one of the presidential debates. Your thoughts, did Senator Kerry miss an opportunity to attack President Bush? You were involved in the campaign. You called him the worst environmental president in the history of the world.

Carol Browner: Well probably in the history of United States.

Darren Samuelsohn: In the United States. Did Senator Kerry strike out swinging on that?

Carol Browner: Well I think that Senator Kerry is obviously a passionate committed environmentalist. He's been a real leader in the Senate throughout his career and I think given his druthers would have spoken to it regularly, but as we all know, increasingly, national campaigns or presidential campaign is really about the two or three issues that the public most wants to hear about. As much as he would've been a real leader, there would have been a huge difference between a President Kerry and a President Bush on clean air, clean water, healthy communities, the American people were saying right now what I want to hear about are another set of issues. You know the one thing that sort of gives me pause when I think about electoral politics and the environment, clean air, clean water, historically this was a bipartisan issue. It wasn't a Democrat or Republican issue. There are many great Republican leaders in the United States Senate who are at the forefront of writing our nation's environmental law, our lands laws, creating our national park system, the Clean Air Act, etc. I think, unfortunately, we may be reaching a moment in time where that bipartisanship is frayed and increasingly the public thinks, well, if you're a Democrat you must be good on this issue and if you're Republican, well, you're not. Either you're not particularly good or it's not a priority. I think that's a very, very sad turn of events. We need to find that bipartisanship. We need to strengthen that bipartisanship. When I was at EPA we passed two major environmental laws and we had both Democratic and Republican support, very important. Senator Kempthorne in Idaho, now the governor of Idaho, authored one of the bills which we worked very closely with him and supported on final passage.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Carol Browner: A new drinking water law.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Carol Browner: Similarly, we passed a new food safety law, again, working with both Democrats and Republicans.

Darren Samuelsohn: Your future I guess? I'm just curious, you've never run for elected office, is that right?

Carol Browner: No, I've never run for, I've been on, as they say there's the elected and then the selected. I've been on the selected side, so there have been two appointed positions.

Darren Samuelsohn: Any interest in Florida House seats or a Florida Senate seat, anything like that?

Carol Browner: Well, I'm a big believer in public service and I think there are many ways to do it. One way is obviously to be appointed, as I was, to the EPA. Another is I am the chair of the National Audubon Board now. I serve on other public interest boards, but certainly running for office, I think for all of us who have been selected in our positions, the idea that you could go out and run someday is very appealing.

Darren Samuelsohn: '06?

Carol Browner: That might be a little soon. I still have a teenager.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Carol Browner: Who was in kindergarten when I started running the EPA, so he gave a big chunk of his life to my years at EPA.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Carol Browner I'm sure we'll see you again. Thank you very much for being here.

Carol Browner: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: This is Darren Samuelsohn from OnPoint. Thank you very much.

[End of Audio]



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