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J. Kevin Carroll
1993 Political Economy of Natural Resources

-Greg Weatherford

Ask J. Kevin Carroll how he wound up in the midst of White House energy policy and he'll point to the value of persistence, and to a lesson he learned as a teenager. His father, a World War II Navy veteran, often listened with some exasperation as his son complained about pollution, society, and the environment. “You don't like it?” the senior Carroll finally retorted. “Change it.”

“And that's been the motivation ever since,” Carroll says.

These days, Carroll is energy branch chief for the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), overseeing policy analysis and development for $17 billion a year in budgets carried out by the Department of Energy. The position is a powerful one, albeit in classic bureaucratic Washington, D.C., fashion. It sits at the intersection of politics, money, and research, allowing Carroll and his staff to support the best energy policies that science and politics can shape.

“One way to think about it is, we write the menu that the policy people choose from,” he explains. For example, his endorsement of better automobile gas mileage wound up as part of a legislative package supporting biofuels. But he's quick to divert any suggestion that he is a force in energy policy.

“Nothing nothing happens in Washington because one person wants it.”

Carroll's job has its advantages. His office faces the White House. His first date with the woman who would become his wife was to watch Fourth of July fireworks from the South Lawn. The office gym allows him a quick shower between his bike ride to work and suiting up for the workday.

His office makes recommendations to the White House about how to fund non-military Energy Department proposals, and oversees a $100 billion loan program that supports energy investments.

Not bad for a guy who began his studies in the College of Natural Resources' Political Economy of Natural Resources program at the age of 28.

Carroll's road to a White House job was a winding one. Born and raised in Connecticut to a devoutly Catholic father from Quincy, Mass., and a “southern belle” mother from Shelby, N.C., he traces his interest in the environment to a high school course in ecology. In that class, “I got an understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural system,” he recalls.

After high school, that understanding, and an inclination for activism, led him to answer a newspaper ad that read “Activists Wanted.” The job turned out to be door-to-door fundraising for various environmental and social causes. While he acknowledges that his fundraising skills were a bit hit-and-miss (“They called me 'the Ultimatum Kid' because I was always this close to missing my quota, he says, laughing), the 18 months he spent doing it taught him persistence and gave him a good grasp of environmental policy.

Eventually Carroll received a promotion to run a branch office in New Haven, Conn. But when he examined its records, he discovered that the branch lost money all year except in summer, when college students came to work. His recommendation that the branch be closed the rest of the year was accepted, and Carroll found himself out of a job.

Around the same time, his girlfriend, who had moved to Mountain View, Calif., invited him to join out of work and without prospects decided to move west. In California he got a number of jobs, including one with an air-conditioning company, and over time he learned to work on HVAC systems. At night he attended classes at community college, doing well.

One day Carroll, now on his own, noticed a UC Berkeley catalog entry on the Political Economy of Natural Resources major. The subject encompassed all he found interesting in ecology, political science, and economics, which he'd found he excelled in. “My God,” he remembers thinking, “It's like they designed it for me!”

True, sophomores like him were not allowed to apply. But after his application was returned, Carroll, using the persistence he'd learned going door to door, talked his way into an interview and convinced the administrators that he was worth taking a chance on. In 1985 he joined the UC Berkeley student body.

For the next eight years, Carroll worked part- or full-time as a lab assistant, barback, bartender, air-conditioning technician, and barista, all the while taking classes toward his degree, which he received in 1993. He went on to earn a master's in public policy from Duke.

An internship with the OMB's Water and Power branch (for which he was initially turned down) led him to Washington and a job analyzing fossil-energy policy for OMB. After that, Carroll spent three educational and exhausting years at the House of Representatives, working on energy legislation and policy for the Committee on Science. When his old boss at OMB was promoted, Carroll applied for the position and returned to the executive branch.

Now, when the White House supports projects from solar cells to fuel economy to nuclear power, Carroll knows he's played a role.

“With these investments alongside private sector development, the government is stimulating thousands of jobs, and we're also moving the ball forward on technology and cleaning up the environment in the process,” he says.

Carroll acknowledges that he took a long and peripatetic road to success but he persisted.

Most important, he says, was that he followed his father's advice: He didn't like something, so he changed it.