Karen Harbert: When Preparation Meets Opportunity

USC1010026 001
USC1010026 001

“There are many, many times when we sit around a table and I’m the only one in heels. And it doesn’t go unnoticed. So I always wanted to be very confident of the facts and prepared in what I was going to say, because you don’t want to be dismissed. That’s true in any meeting, in any setting; however, it was very true in my earlier years. I think that once you prove your muster, you are given equal time and equal confidence. But it is true: You do have to prove it; you do have to earn it, not unlike in anything else.”

So says Karen Harbert, President and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She’s discussing some of the challenges of being a woman in what has been a mostly male-dominated world of energy, a world that she has played a significant role in shaping throughout an accomplished career that began with an assignment at the Republican National Committee (RNC) upon her graduation from Rice University in 1988.

“And I think things are beginning to change in the energy industry: We certainly see more women in the C-suite,” says Harbert. “On the other hand, I don’t think we see enough women on boards. That’s probably across all business areas, but particularly in the energy industry, and I hope that does continue to change over time. But it is less about bringing people in from the rigs and up the headquarters ladder; the industry becomes more open to women as it evolves into more of a high-tech industry. So, it’s changing, and for me it meant doubling down and making sure I was well-prepared. But also, it’s about kicking the tires a little bit and letting them know us women can do this too.”

Taking the Road Less Traveled

Legendary University of Texas Head Football Coach Darrell Royal, when asked by a reporter if he felt like his team had gotten “lucky” following a hard-fought win, famously replied, “‘Luck’ has nothing to do with it. ‘Luck’ is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

img_20151009_135126By Coach Royal’s standard, Karen Harbert has been a very “lucky” person indeed. Her lifetime of preparing to take advantage of opportunities when they have presented themselves began with a decision to leave her hometown of Washington, D.C. for college. That decision led her to Rice University, a highly selective school with fewer than 3,000 students located in Houston. “I was born in Argentina, but my formative years were here in Washington, Harbert states. “[When it came time for college] I wanted to get out of Washington to do my studies. I had always been close to politics here in Washington and I knew that was going to be at least a part of my future, but I felt it would be beneficial to get out of here and see things from a different point of view.

“And choosing to go to a university in Texas was great, because I was able to be exposed to politics in Texas, which is a different kind of politics. I can remember being at Rice when Ronald Reagan came to Houston (during the 1984 campaign), and some friends and I went to his event there. That left a very big impression [on] me about the type of man he was, the type of leader he was and his passion for making sure that he connected with younger people.

“When I finally did begin homing in on my major at Rice, I ended up selecting political science. But I added to it a focus on international policy, because I was born in Argentina and always had a passion for international issues. And when I had to select a major in that international policy portion of my degree, I chose Russian nuclear affairs. That was because we were in the midst of the Cold War, and I was fascinated with how Reagan was handling it. I wanted to know more about it so I could be more fluent on it and possibly focus on it upon graduation.”

As “luck” would have it, upon graduation, Harbert moved back to Washington and immediately got a job working for President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen Reagan, at the RNC headquarters. “After the election was over and George [H.W.] Bush had been elected to the presidency, Mr. Reagan was kind enough to invite our whole office to come to the Oval Office during the transition for a sort of ‘goodbye and thank you’ meeting, which included having lunch in the White House Mess,” Harbert recalls. “I’ll never forget, there was a gentleman out in the hallway holding a big American Indian headdress — which he had come to present to the President as a going-away gift — and it turned out to be New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici. And of course, Sen. Domenici is literally the father of so much of our national energy policy. That was a great opportunity to meet President Reagan finally.”

harbert-april-testimony-2But it wasn’t the first time she’d had the chance to exchange words with President Reagan: “I had spoken to him several times before because, as one of the junior people in the office at the RNC, you had to answer the phone when it rang. I can’t tell you how many times he would just call and say, “Hi. Is my daughter around?” It’s the President of the United States on the phone, oh my goodness! Don’t disconnect him! And that would be the stress — making sure I pushed the hold button right and connected him correctly.”

She obviously handled that stressful situation and her other duties at the RNC well. Within a few months, shortly after Mr. Reagan’s term in office came to an end and the presidency of George H.W. Bush began, Karen seized another opportunity, this time with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she worked in several developing nations in Latin America. Harbert recalls, “When he [Bush] won, I joined USAID and worked in Latin America,” which made sense since Spanish is her first language. “Anyplace you would never at that time go to on vacation, I was working on: Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia. And I got a very early exposure to the developing world, and to the causes and effects of poverty.”

It was in that assignment that Harbert began to witness and understand the relationship between the availability of reliable and affordable energy and economic prosperity. It is on this direct cause-and-effect relationship that she has worked to solve in her career ever since. “I worked there for four years, and that led me to pursue the next stage in my career, which was to work in Latin America again, but this time on strengthening the democratic institutions in these countries so they could be more stable and ultimately achieve economic growth,” she states. “Because it had become very apparent to me, particularly in countries dominated by corrupt governments, that there was far less opportunity to achieve economic growth than in other countries.

“So I worked for four years on democracy-building and came to the conclusion then that the real cause of some of these discrepancies in growth and income and success of countries was really the lack of energy and a lack of infrastructure. Because if a country — or to take it to a lower level, a community — had access to energy then kids could study at night, people would get off the streets, there was more work, crime went down, opportunities rose, women were being contributors as were men. It was really the common denominator to the previous 12 years of my life.”

These years of preparation allowed Harbert to seize on the next opportunity that came forward, this time in private industry: a global assignment in which she helped lead the development and installation of power projects. “I worked next not just in Latin America, but all over the world in countries like Pakistan, Colombia and others, this time in the private sector on developing power projects,” she says. “I was the only non-engineer in this company, and the reason they hired me was because I had worked in the developing world and could speak, sort of, “government speak” while they spoke “engineer speak.” I did this for a little over 10 years, and during that time we successfully developed more than $9 billion worth of energy infrastructure.”

ei_image_dec_23_fb-2But the administration of George W. Bush soon came calling, with a chance for Harbert to return to USAID, but this time with a much broader portfolio of responsibilities for which she was again extremely well-prepared. Her luck was holding. “Next, I wanted to get back into government and apply this experience there,” she explains. “I went back to USAID and tried to get them to focus more on energy and the structural problems of poverty. I wasn’t able to get them to do that to the extent I thought was necessary. But I did run a lot of other programs. I did all of the counter-drug work in Colombia and was in charge of several other projects in countries like Venezuela and Haiti. I was in charge of all of South America and the Carribean, all the time with a passion toward trying to get the agency to focus more on energy.

“That led me to the Energy Department, where I was able to put all this experience into action both domestically and internationally. And that ultimately led me here, and my current focus on policy development and advocacy. So, it looks stranger than maybe it is. I’m not saying I planned it all this way, but it has been a process in which every step along the way I have been able to apply the lessons learned in the past.”

Coach Royal would have been proud to see his philosophy on making one’s own luck carried out so clearly and precisely in a highly successful individual’s life. But for Harbert, it has been about more than just being prepared — it’s also been a process of doing things her own way, setting herself apart from the crowd and taking on assignments less for career development and advancement than for allowing her to find ways to continue to address the problems for which she developed a passion to solve early in her career: “Every time a decision point came, I took the path less traveled,” she says. “And I’ve had all of these interesting experiences that have led to a productive career. I didn’t just go to law school and end up here because I was a good environmental lawyer. I’ve been out there and seen it all, and brought all those experiences with me on the way to trying to solve the problems I saw early on.”

And as a result, Harbert says she has “sat in all the chairs necessary to be in my current job. I have been in government; I have been in the private sector; I have been in a nongovernmental organization [NGO]; and I have worked in an international organization, a subsidiary of the UN, which is important in the energy picture. So, having sat in all the seats at the table, I understand how important they all are and that, while the private sector is ultimately the driver of many of these things, all the other factors have to fall into place to make them work.”

So, what does that mean to the layman out there? “You have to have the right policy environment; you have to have good relationships with the NGOs that are representing concerns of communities and citizens; you have to be able to have strong advocates, you have to know which international rules you’ll be subject to. So, I do have a unique understanding — I didn’t just work in the energy industry for 20 years and then decide I wanted to get into public policy.

“Of course, now I find myself worrying more about Toledo [Ohio] than I do about Turkmenistan.”
Is worrying about Toledo a little simpler for you? “It’s a little less travel.”

Washington, DC, USA - December 2, 2015: Energy Council Leadership Meeting featuring Rep. Steve Scalise, Majority Whip, with Tom Donohue. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Washington, DC, USA – December 2, 2015: Energy Council Leadership Meeting featuring Rep. Steve Scalise, Majority Whip, with Tom Donohue. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

No doubt. Not that that’s ever been a problem for Harbert before.

Raising Kids in an Age of Helicopter Parents

As an increasing percentage of women have made the choice to be working mothers over the years, many stories have been written and broadcast about the challenges for them and their families. In a career involving as much travel as Harbert’s has demanded, such challenges can be daunting, especially with a husband whose own career has also been travel-heavy. But both are gifted problem-solvers, so they have found ways to compensate and cope.

“I did get married late because I was traveling all over the world and doing crazy things. I was lucky to meet my husband, who was in a similar line of work in the democracy-building business. He was in Asia, I was in Latin America, which proved to be a little ‘globally challenging.’ But we got married when I was 32, which is later than some, and we didn’t have kids for a little while because of the pressures involved in our work.

“I am certainly not going to tell you that having a fast-paced career and having a family was easy; but, at the same time, I think our kids have been exposed to things that other children haven’t been. Whether that makes them better or not, I guess time will tell. But they’ve always had a working mother who was going to very interesting places doing very interesting things, and as a result we have had great dinnertime conversations.”

Does it get any easier as the kids grow older? “Actually, I will say that at one point, after I left the [Department of Energy], I realized it’s easier to be really crazy-busy when your kids are really young. That may sound counterintuitive, but if they just need to be fed, changed and supervised, it doesn’t necessarily always have to be you. But as they get older and the issues get different — right now my kids are 11 and 15 — it is fortunate that I am now on the road less and have more flexibility in determining my schedule than I did when they were younger.

But things have been challenging at times. “For example, I missed my son’s first day of kindergarten. But you try to make up for those things in different ways. Making sure you are there whenever possible — and certainly, one of us was always there. And now as they’re growing up in a world in which social media is ever-present, you have to be more vigilant.

kah-speaking-1“On the positive side, I think my kids are able to talk about what’s going on with the election much more fluently than many of their peers are able to do. They can talk about what’s happening in some of the parts of the developing world in ways that some of the other kids aren’t able to do. So there’s benefits, there’s challenges, and, you know, we live in an age of helicopter parents, so I hope that in some ways it [having such busy parents] will make it better for them.”

Making Energy Policy in a Town Where Congeniality Is a Relic of the Past

Having spent her formative years in Washington (her family relocated there when she was in sixth grade) and then returning there to spend most of her career, Harbert has witnessed a sea change in the culture that exists among policymakers in Congress and the executive branch of government. As politics in the nation’s capital have become increasingly partisan, it has made the making of good public policy far more difficult.

“Growing up, my family belonged to a country club here, outside of the city — in Maryland — which was frequented by many members of Congress,” she explains. “This was Congressional Country Club. I can remember being a lifeguard out there in the summer, earning my spending money and seeing [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill there on the weekend playing golf and bringing a fellow Democrat and two Republicans along. And their spouses would come out and go to the clubhouse to play bridge or other activities. Then they’d all meet up for lunch or dinner together afterward. “When I think about that back in the late ’70s and compare it to today, when members of Congress don’t spend the weekend here, many don’t bring their spouses to D.C. to live, so nobody ever gets to meet anybody. Well, it’s really a lot easier to make deals with people who you know, who you have some sort of relationship with. You don’t have to ‘like’ them, but that there is some sense of camaraderie, even when you don’t agree with each other, or at least a sense of congeniality. That certainly is clearly missing today. And I think that’s a shame, because Tip O’Neill was able to do that on the weekends, and then he’d end up in Ronald Reagan’s office on Monday saying ‘I think we got us a deal, sir.’

“But we’ve gotten to such a different place as things have evolved. Certainly, as you move into a 24-hour news cycle, with constant social media, if you went out and played golf on the weekend with someone (from the other party) it would be all over CNN before you got to the third hole. And then you’d be having to go tweet about how it was a good thing in response. So, it is a very different environment. Think about what it would be like if you had a company of 535 people and none of them knew each other; you certainly wouldn’t be achieving the same bottom line that you would if they all knew each other.”

Good point. When we asked about what, if anything, can be done to make the situation better, she pauses, smiles and replies, “Someone said the other day that what we should probably do is take out the air conditioning from the Capitol building, because if there were no A/C they’d go home all summer and do other things rather than being here.”

Certainly, that couldn’t hurt. We next asked how the disappearance of congeniality in the nation’s capital has impacted the making of national energy policy over the years. “If you go back to energy policy under Bush Sr., George W. Bush, and President Clinton, energy policy was dominated by regional divisions. Energy policy for the West Coast was different than what was useful for the Southeast. The Southeast and the Northeast were more interested in pursuing nuclear, while California and the West Coast were more interested in renewables. Meanwhile, Texas, Oklahoma and the middle of the country [were] more focused on oil, gas and coal. That’s the way it used to be, but now it is sharply divided among the two parties. One that sees itself as ‘pro-environment’ and one that thinks of itself as ‘pro-energy.’”

Washington, DC, USA - May 6, 2015: Encana President and CEO Doug Suttles, CEO Series. With Sen. Cory Gardner. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Washington, DC, USA – May 6, 2015: Encana President and CEO Doug Suttles, CEO Series. With Sen. Cory Gardner. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Do you think any of that will change in the Trump years? “I think that when history writes about the Trump presidency, it will be both. Because the type of energy policy people want to see pursued and what the market reality is, is that hopefully by easing some of these heavy regulations on fossil fuels and ending endless amounts of grants, loans and subsidies for renewables, we will then be relying more on the market. And the market tells us we need everything. Things will then be more affordable, we will have a more diverse industry and hopefully an industry that can thrive in this country, which will make us more competitive around the world. So, I think that you’re going to see that some of these strangling regulations that the Obama administration has been rushing to get out the door will be peeled back. I do not underestimate how difficult that can be: It can take years, as in more than one, sometimes more than two, to redo and put forward a replacement regulation. But I think there is enough enthusiasm to do that that people will be serious about it and stick with it.”

Speaking of partisan behavior, what about the departure of Harry Reid? Since assuming the role of Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, retiring Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has without a doubt played a big role in taking the partisanship in the U.S. Senate to a new level. During the 10 years in which he has been the party’s leader in the Senate, Reid’s efforts to obstruct the budget process have been largely responsible for the fact that Congress has failed in all but a single year to enact an actual federal budget, running the government instead on a series of continuing resolutions.

Couple that with Reid’s propensity for unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric in his speeches in the Senate chamber, and we wondered if Harbert believes there may be an opportunity for improvement under the new leadership of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. She says, “Sen. Reid has certainly exemplified partisan behavior at its highest level. He was majority leader when I was up for confirmation, and my confirmation vote was held up for many months as he put me on hold in order to advance a nominee he wanted for a different position. “That sort of thing used to be quite out of the ordinary, and now it is part of the daily diet — on both sides of the aisle. But Reid certainly mastered it early on. It would be very difficult to see how, if he were to remain in a Trump presidency, his type of behavior would play. We will have to see how Sen. Schumer emerges as a leader. He has in the past been willing to do deals, but he is in a position now with a party that is down and out, and I think his supporters will be looking to him to be disruptive of the Republican agenda.

“There is going to be a lot of politics, because there is another election in 2018 and his party has a lot at stake in that election. [The Democrats will be defending 25 Senate seats — more than half of their 48 members — in 2018, and the Republicans only eight.] He has to figure out how to protect the members he wants to protect; how to prevent them from having to take hard votes, how to let them take the votes they want to take. And that puts them right back in the Harry Reid category if that’s the kind of politics they want to play. But we’re at the beginning of a new Congress, and I hope it will be a new start. I think there is common ground on infrastructure, of which energy is a big piece, but we have to wait and see. If there are areas we can work together with Sen. Schumer on, we will do it.”

Influencing Energy Policy: Working From the Outside In

The strategies for influencing public policy have shifted over the decades as the partisan atmosphere in Washington has intensified. This shifting playing field has required organizations to find creative ways to make their mark on the legislative and regulatory processes. Not surprisingly, Harbert and the Institute for 21st Century Energy have been at the forefront of developing new strategies for effective advocacy.

“We certainly do the traditional advocacy thing of visiting on the hill, letting members know how the chamber feels about certain issues impacting the energy space. But I have to say that, as time has gone on, effective organizations are focusing more time out of Washington rather than expending shoe leather walking the halls of Congress. They’re going into congressional districts. They’re working with their local memberships. If a member of Congress gets a visit in a district office from a local business saying, ‘Mr. Congressman, if you vote for HR-1234, I’m going to have to lay off 12 employees,’ he or she listens. But if somebody walks into the office here and says, ‘You know what, I think your district is going to suffer,’ he or she has no frame of reference. So many organizations, including ours, are working with our local chambers and members, getting them up to speed on the issues, getting them to communicate with policymakers in the places in which they work and live.”

What about the regulatory side of things? “The regulatory side of the business has dramatically changed during this administration. In the good old days [pre-Obama administration], you could sit down with your regulator and say, ‘I know where you are trying to go with this regulation. Let me try to show you how it is a little misguided, and how it’s going to affect me.’ And the regulator might say, ‘Oh, that’s an unintended consequence. Let’s fix that before the rule goes final.’
“Today, there is no consultative process. So, you have to be far more diligent in the rule-making process, in putting in a lot more detailed information in your formal comments. You have to do your own economic modeling showing how this regulation might impact your industry; it’s a lot more expensive to do this. But you have to get this information into the formal record in the hopes your issues might be addressed.

“And you have to do this very hard work in preparation for litigation, so that in the court system you can prove your concerns are real, that they were not addressed in the rule-making process, that your industry is being harmed, and that this rule is not fair and equitable. So, the rule-making part has become much more of an issue in the Obama years, because they have chosen to use this process as a substitute for legislative activity.”

Again, there is that theme of preparation meeting opportunity, even for the opportunities you’d rather not have to address.

21st Century Energy Priorities for a New Administration

In closing, we asked Harbert about the Institute for 21st Century Energy’s legislative and regulatory priorities for the upcoming session of Congress and the Trump administration. To no one’s surprise, she’s already planning to seize the opportunities to come.

testimony-3“We certainly want to get the siting process for LNG facilities simplified. It’s too complex and time-consuming and there are plenty of opportunities there. We are going to go all-in on the REINS Act [Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act], because that will reform the regulatory process. It is important in any administration to have a regulatory process that makes sense and works for the American people. Right now, Congress is considering the REINS Act, which says that if you’re going to have a rule of significant economic impact, Congress must vote on it. That would enforce a level of transparency and accountability that we have not seen in recent years, and that’s what we need to restore.

“The Obama administration has been ruling via regulation rather than through the legislative process and transparent debate. Restoring that and preserving it for future presidents will be very good for the business community. So we are very hopeful we can get the Reins Act passed in the new Congress.

“We plan to focus more on the agencies themselves in the beginning of the administration to see how we can get some of these bad regulations repealed. And there are some regulations that were finalized during the last few months of the Obama administration that Congress can repeal as soon as they get in, particularly the midnight regulations that are coming out right now during the transition period.”

We asked Harbert if she thinks a significant effort around tax reform is going to happen in 2017. “Time will tell,” she says. “I think there will be, but I don’t underestimate how hard it will be. Because if you want to look at the best way to meet the needs of the middle-class voters who put Trump in office, they’re looking for more job opportunities; they’re looking for an improved economy; they’re looking for ways to improve themselves. They’re not looking for handouts; they’re not looking for welfare.

“To do that, we have to grow the economy; and to grow the economy, we have to make businesses more productive, and to do that, we have to lower taxes. So, I think they’ll be looking at lowering taxes; they’ll be looking at ways to move money back into the country, to have companies repatriate their profits and to use some of those to fund infrastructure programs. They’ll be looking for ways to stimulate the economy without resorting to massive handouts, and tax reform is high on the agenda.”

If you think that all sounds complicated and very difficult, Harbert agrees. “It is going to be difficult. Our tax code is more complex than people can even get their head around; and all industries are, to their credit, going to want to preserve their own little carve-outs. So it’s easy to say we’re going to do tax reform, but it’s another thing to do it.”

One thing that we have learned from how Karen Harbert has conducted herself throughout her fast-paced career is that if an opportunity to weigh in on a major tax reform effort (or any other relevant issue) presents itself in the coming years, she and the Institute for 21st Century Energy will be well-prepared to take advantage of it.

And “luck,” as Coach Royal would say, will have nothing to do with it.

About the author: David Blackmon is Associate Editor for Oil and Gas for SHALE Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles, the last 22 years engaged in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at [email protected].

Photos Courtesy of Karen Harbert


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here