Meet the New Administrator: An Interview with Carol M. Browner

[EPA Journal - January/February/March 1993]

Q: We would like to begin by asking you to talk a few minutes about your priorities and objectives as EPA Administrator.

A: In terms of how we look at the far reaching and very complicated environmental problems facing this country, we need to have a framework in which to work, and that framework needs to be pollution prevention. We must focus our resources upstream, look at new technology, look at source reduction. If we use pollution prevention as a framework, we can decide on the methods that get us to where we need to be in the long term--namely to sustainable development and environmental protection. To that end, I look forward to working closely with EPA's staff, as I will on all issues. There is impressive talent here, and I want all of our work--and particularly our scientific analysis--to be recognized nationally as the very best.

Q: What is your prognosis on whether and when EPA might be elevated to Department and Cabinet status?

A: The President is very committed to the elevation of EPA to Cabinet status. There is significant support among members on the Hill for it to move quickly. One can never fully anticipate what will happen, but I am encouraged by the support that we have. What is important about the elevation is that it will bring to environment to the table as a full participant. President Clinton has treated the Agency and me thus far as a full member of the Cabinet. But it is important for the future to give environmental issues the high visibility that Cabinet status implies. It is important to keep the environment at the top of the national agenda and at the forefront of public consciousness, and Cabinet status will help us accomplish those goals.

Q: You have said that during your tenure, environmental policies will finally move beyond the "either/or" tradeoff between jobs and the environment toward a sustainable economic future. Two questions: How will this goal be reflected in future decision making at EPA? And how does your thinking on this compare with past EPA policies?

A: It is important to look at the history of environmental regulation in this country. It has been decades since the enactment of the original Clean Water Act and the other federal legislation that followed thereafter. The initial focus--and rightly so because we didn't have the technology to do otherwise--was on controlling end-of-the-pipe emissions and discharges. Back then, we had a lot of significant, obviously bad practices taking place. We began a series of regulatory schemes that sought to resolve those problems. Oftentimes those schemes did not look beyond the immediate impact; they did not consider possibilities for preventing an activity from happening in the first place or allowing it to happen only within certain parameters. As the regulatory programs developed, they inevitably have had economic impacts.

We are now at a crossroads. Everyone in this country shares the idea of a clean environment for future generations, and they want to achieve that. We are, however, going to have to be mindful of the consequences of environmental protection. We need to use economic incentives to encourage businesses to make the right decisions. We need to look at the true cost of the actions that we take--not just what it costs today--but what it is going to cost over, let's say, the next 10, 20, 40 years and beyond. Factoring in all these considerations is important so that when we make decisions under the regulatory scheme, we make them using all of the information available.

Q: You are coming to EPA from Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation (DER). Do you see a prominent role for state and local governments in environmental initiatives during your administration? If so, how can EPA best help states and localities deal with increasing environmental responsibility?

A: The states have a lot to offer. There is a lot to be done. There is more to be done than any one agency could ever hope to achieve. We at EPA need to facilitate. We need to encourage those states where the state legislature, the governor, or the citizens of the state have decided that they are going to put resources into environmental protection. We have other states which have not made that decision. We need to work with them, to help them understand their environmental commitments.

We must respect the states' prerogatives. There are many issues where states really are best suited to decide how to strike that final balance. As a national agency looking at the entire country, we must come up with rules that fit for Florida, Maine, Hawaii, Alaska, and Iowa, to pick random states. There are similarities between those states, but there are also great dissimilarities. A state can look more closely at the situation that exists within its boundaries. We have to respect that, and we have to encourage that.

Q: What do you view as your major accomplishments as head of Florida's DER?

A: We brought an integrity to environmental protection and environmental regulation in Florida. We worked very hard, and I'm proud of the efforts we made. We started looking broadly at ecosystem protection, which helped us get beyond some of the kinds of problems we're seeing all over the country in a lot of the applications of environmental regulation. I'm proud of the clean air act that we passed and the coalitions we were able to forge between business, environmental groups, and state agencies. In almost every instance, our successes were because we worked in a cooperative manner. We brought everyone to the table from the beginning and received input on how we were going to address each issue.

Q: In the past, you have worked closely with Vice President Al Gore. What lessons have you learned through your working relationship with him?

A: I served as Senator Gore's legislative director for almost two years. It was an opportunity to work in an important way in the U.S. Senate in formulating policy on a variety of issues of significance, including environmental issues. Along with the understanding of policy that comes from having worked for the Senate, I have hands-on regulatory experience. It's not often that you get both of those experiences. If I were to go back to the policy side with the experience I have now, I would probably do things differently. I'm forever thankful to Senator Gore for the experience with him.

Q: Relations between EPA and the corporate world have been said to be improving. Does your agenda involve working toward less adversarial roles for business and regulators?

A: Absolutely. Most businesses recognize that, for a variety of reasons, a clean environment is important, and they are willing to work cooperatively toward that goal.

Q: President Clinton has been quoted as saying that one reason he wanted you to be EPA Administrator is "because she knows...what it's like to be governed by EPA and how awful [the result] can be when it is done wrong; what it is like to see an agency take two contradictory positions at the same time and put the heat on that state and the private sector; what it is like to see the EPA take one position, then another, and then another." Can you elaborate on what he meant here?

A: Well, when a state is subject to federal government regulations--whether the agency is EPA or any other federal regulator--inconsistencies occur. And they are extremely frustrating. The inconsistencies are at times understandable; at other times they are not. The more we, as a federal agency, respect that states are attempting to do the right thing, give them clear guidance in what we will accept, and then adhere to the guidance that we gave them, the better our relationship with them will be.

We've certainly had the experience in Florida of being in touch with our regional U.S. EPA office and being told, "See if you can make 'X' happen," only to find out later that it was "Y" we needed to accomplish. There may have been legitimate reasons why it was now "Y," and "X" was no longer right, but something got lost in the communication. For some reason, we didn't find out until we were so far down the "X" path that the change involved going back to the state legislature or going back through the rulemaking process. That experience is not unique to state government. It is something that businesses legitimately complain about.

There needs to be consistency in the decision making, and there needs to be timeliness. I believe you can have both of these without foregoing environmental standards and environmental quality. For a long time, people in the environmental community argued that streamlining the permitting process would result in the degradation of the environment. I don't think that is true. I don't think, in the end, that's what the business community is advocating. What they are saying--and rightly so--is that time is money to them. And they want answers. That is what we found the business community saying in Florida: "You can say no; just don't take four years to do it. Tell us no in a timely manner."