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What's an 'energy czar,' anyway?

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(Read caption) Unlike Carol Browner, Czar Alexander III of Russia never served as administrator of the EPA.

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It's not official yet, but news reports say that President Clinton's former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner has been chosen by Barack Obama to serve as his administration's "energy czar." What exactly does an energy czar do?

As The Wall Street Journal noted last week, the Obama administration sees a challenge in coordinating all the federal agencies that have a hand in energy policy, including the Department of Transportation, which sets fuel economy standards; the Department of the Interior, which grants permits for oil and gas drilling on federal land; the EPA, which regulates air and water quality; the Department of Commerce, which develops infrastructure to promote economic growth and sustainable development; and of course the Department of Energy.

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In February 2008, the Center for American Progress, which is headed by John Podesta, who also leads Mr. Obama's transition team, proposed appointing a National Energy Adviser, who reports directly to the president. This adviser would chair a National Energy Council made up of the heads of the relevant cabinet-level departments. In addition to coordinating energy policy among those departments, the council would be responsible for "outreach with states, localities, and the private sector, and US leadership and partnership in international efforts to reduce global emissions."

There's little evidence that the Founding Fathers were inspired by Slavic autocracies when they drafted the framework of our republic, but the term has a fairly long tradition in US politics. President Johnson appointed a "poverty czar" in 1964, President Reagan appointed a "drug czar" in 1982, President Clinton appointed an "terrorism czar" in 1998, and President Bush appointed a "war czar" in 2007. And as lawmakers wrangle over how much the government should intervene in the failing auto industry, there's been talk of appointing a "car czar" to authorize loans and set benchmarks for progress.

Ms. Browner would not be the first energy czar ever. In 1973, President Nixon appointed John A. Love as the nation's first Director of the Office of Energy Policy, a title that was quickly dubbed "energy czar" by the press. That  office morphed into the Federal Energy Administration, which eventually became the cabinet-level Department of Energy in 1977.

The online Washington mag Politico notes that Obama himself is not fond of the term "czar."  (It's only a matter of time before this will prompt commentators to draw parallels between him and Vladimir Lenin.)

For her part, Browner has mocked The New York Times for calling her a potential "climate czarina." Displaying more historical acumen than the Times, she noted to Grist that the term actually means "wife of the czar."

"I'm pretty sure my husband isn't going to be czar of anything," she told Grist.