Reporting from Washington — Carol Browner, President Obama's controversial climate and energy czar, will step down soon, White House officials said Tuesday, in a move that some energy lobbyists saw as another signal that the administration wants to make amends with an alienated business community by reconsidering environmental regulation.
Many environmentalists said that Browner's resignation in itself did not signal a retreat from environmental protections. But both sides said they were watching closely for the White House's next steps, including whether a successor to Browner would be named, who that person might be and what the mandate would be.
"Browner has been the president's clean-energy and climate conscience," wrote Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group. "If he doesn't reach out for someone high-profile to replace her, it will appear as if those issues have become very subordinate to the reelection campaign."
C. Kyle Simpson, an Energy Department official in the Clinton administration and a lobbyist with Hogan Lovells, said: "Her departure from the administration is not going to determine what the views of industry will be. It will be who is her successor, if there is a successor."
A White House official declined to say when Browner would leave and whether she would be replaced, stating only that reorganization on various fronts was occurring within the administration.
Browner has been a lightning rod for the right and some on the left during her two years as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. Republican members of Congress balked at her appointment to a post that did not require Senate confirmation.
Some environmentalists criticized her for backing expanded offshore drilling before the Deepwater Horizon disaster and for her office's sometimes rosy take on the spill's effects, including a now-infamous and erroneous statement Browner made in August that most of the oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill had disappeared.
Browner and her boss failed to win congressional passage for climate-change legislation, which is now effectively dead given the greater Republican presence in Congress.
But she helped broker a landmark agreement among the Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Department and the automakers to increase vehicle fuel-efficiency standards in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Some environmentalists have worried aloud — and many businesses, lobbyists and members of Congress have cheered — over recent remarks and small steps by the administration to review environmental priorities. Obama could face a tough reelection battle next year if an alienated business community pours its campaign donations into the coffers of his Republican opponent. The GOP-led House has also vowed to swiftly roll back environmental regulations promulgated by the EPA, which they argue "kill jobs."
Since the drubbing his party suffered in the midterm elections, Obama has staked out a more business-friendly position. Most notably, Obama signed an executive order last week and wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that seemed to echo business' language about burdensome rules. In the op-ed, he cited an EPA rule as emblematic of poor regulation.
A White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly insisted that Browner's departure did not mean a diminished focus on environmental protection.
"The president's commitment to these issues will of course continue, but any transition of the office will be announced soon," the official said.