Will the White House allow EPA to move aggressively on regulating greenhouse gases? Will the Energy Department continue President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ approach on oil and gas development? I talked with Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Story Americas” about the nominations of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy.
The program aired on March 8. The segment on EPA and DOE runs from 8:30-16:45 in the 25-minute program. During the first part of the program, Ryan Grim, Washington Bureau Chief for the Huffington Post, discussed Obama’s picks to head the CIA, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Treasury Department.
From the Al Jazeera English website: Inside Story Americas: Are Obama’s cabinet choices right for the US?
After weeks of speculation, this week Barack Obama named Gina McCarthy to lead the US Environmental Protection Ageny. She is the former director’s trusted deputy. McCarthy has made climate change a priority. She has been praised by those who worked with her, especially on developing the US Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury standards, which are estimated to prevent 11,000 premature deaths from poor air quality.
Obama has nominated MIT professor Ernest Moniz to run the Department of Energy. Moniz concluded that hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a “bridge to a low carbon future”, after he led a study funded by oil and gas companies. …
So what do these latest nominations say about President Obama’s future policies?
Climate Science Watch transcript of our portion of the Q&A with host Shihab Rattansi:
AJE: We were talking about the Office of Management and Budget, and that does bring us to the environmental picks of President Obama — because the previous head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick, was in some ways stymied by the OMB — Lisa Jackson. Perhaps you can explain why we have a vacancy in EPA in the first place.
RP: Lisa Jackson was a strong and progressive EPA Administrator — I think one of the bright lights of Obama’s first term. One of her signature efforts was to strengthen the clean air program with a toughened rule on smog emissions — something the Bush Administration had been very bad on. It was a science-based rule, a health-based rule — and she was told by the White House, including the Office of Management and Budget I think, and the President’s Chief of Staff, to take that rule down and hold it, at least until after the election — after the Chamber of Commerce and a lot of the leading corporate representatives met with the Office of Management and Budget and lobbied against it. So for political expediency the rule was taken down.
So with EPA the question is, will it be allowed to do its job?
AJE: Lisa Jackson was much-loved by environmentalists, at least for trying. And she stepped down, some said, because the Obama Administration was so ineffective on climate change. But if Gina McCarthy was her deputy, is there still room for hope for environmentalists?
RP: Gina McCarthy ran the air office at EPA, which is responsible for regulating not only air quality but now also for regulating emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s a very important office. I think Gina McCarthy — she may not be as great as Lisa Jackson, but she is ready to do environmental regulation. I don’t think the business interests are quite as antagonistic toward her as they were toward Jackson.
But really, the question is, will she be allowed to do her job? I think the White House is slow-walking the regulation of greenhouse gases. We’re now almost nine years past the Supreme Court decision that led to the Endangerment Finding. It’s going to be 3 1/2 years beyond the Endangerment Finding on greenhouse gases — the finding by EPA pursuant to the law and the Supreme Court ruling that emissions of greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare. That’s supposed to trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act.
So far, we’re in the fifth year of the Obama Administration and they do have a rule on vehicle emissions, a proposed rule on future power plants that haven’t been built yet, and no action whatsoever as far as I can see on existing power plants.
AJE: Two interesting things there — first of all, EPA has become so important, Ryan, because Congress isn’t going to do anything, so now we’re looking to see if something will happen through the EPA, is that correct?
RG: It’s the planet’s last shot, almost, residing in the EPA.
AJE: There are some who wonder whether President Obama will make some ‘grand bargain’ allowing, perhaps, the Keystone pipeline to go ahead, which is very controversial, and in return say, perhaps, we’ll have tighter emission standards for power plants. Is that what we’re looking at, because these are the sorts of things that are being thrown around.
RP: That’s a very interesting and plausible hypothesis. The State Department has come out with an environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone tar ands pipeline that seems to lay a predicate for approving it. Not only do they minimize its incremental greenhouse gas emissions, but they say, essentially, the tar sands are going to be developed anyway, if they have to ship them out of there on rail cars they will, so there’s no point in — it’s as if they are almost inviting the President to go ahead and allow it and keep from antagonizing Canada, although he’ll antagonize the climate movement, the environmental movement.
AJE: An important part of his political base.
RP: And maybe at the same time say we are going to regulate this and this, including emissions from coal-fired power plants.
AJE: Let’s move on to Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz. Who is he?
RP: He was an Under Secretary of Energy during the Clinton-Gore Administration. He’s been at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, running an energy research center. They did a study that came out strongly in favor of natural gas hydrofracking. He’s pro-nuclear power. He’s actually a very good candidate for Obama’s so-called ‘all of the above’ energy strategy.
AJE: He’s the one who we often hear, the ‘bridge to the low-carbon future’ — it’s in that report, which was funded by the hydraulic fracturing — the oil and gas industry, basically.
RP: It’s clear the Obama Administration is strongly in favor of natural gas with hydrofracking. They’re working with industry, they’re trying to put a good environmental face on it.
AJE: And doesn’t it reduce carbon emissions?
RP: Incrementally — although there’s even debate about that if you look at leaks and so forth. Natural gas is displacing coal for electric power production. That’s an incremental reduction in greenhouse gases, with serious environmental concerns. But what is it a ‘bridge to‘? Is it a bridge to renewable energy, or does it just hold off the renewable energy transition?
RG: One consequence of the low cost of natural gas could be that it would drive out wind power and solar power and other renewables, and the bridge ends up pushing the shore away.
RP: And as we’re taking coal out in the U.S., the industry is exporting that coal, to Europe, and so the emissions end up somewhere else.
There is no strategy to deal with the climate problem.
AJE: Do they get it? Do they understand the emergency? We have a report this week about the planet being the hottest it’s been for 4,000 years. Is there any urgency, as far as you can tell? Is there a strategy to phase out carbon emissions?
RP: The President’s science adviser, John Holdren, says the President understands the nature of the climate change problem. The President says he understands it and that we need to deal with it. But there is no strategy. There is no policy that is commensurate with the urgency of the problem.
It’s a heavy lift, politically. It’s not something you would do just for fun. It’s only if you understand the prospect of global climatic disruption, its costs and impacts. If you’re willing to talk to the public about that in a sustained way, and mobilize and do the political heavy lifting, you might start to get somewhere. But that’s not where we are right now.
AJE: Ryan Grim, after the speech Obama gave after his re-election, liberals were beside themselves with the speech. It sounded like an energized president, who was going to be emboldened and aggressive, on the environment and the economy and everything else. Do any of these appointments suggest that the liberals were right to be so hopeful?
RG: The EPA appointment, I think, is a good one, and there is hope there. There is a major, major urgency. This is something that has to be dealt with now. That’s what the President said. He has someone in place who can do it. If you don’t do it soon, as climate change starts to create more disorder around the globe, you lose…
AJE: But it doesn’t seem like Gina McCarthy is even as much of a fighter as Lisa Jackson was, so you wonder…
RP: I think she’ll be a good soldier for the Obama White House. If she’s given the green light — go go go — she will move. If it’s like, slow walk these regulations, take another four years to get another rule out, then that’s what we’ll see. I think the high politics will drive it.
AJE: So Ryan Grim: Obama, progressive second term, it’s going to be amazing, fearless?
RG: Let’s have hope.
AJE: Ryan Grim, Washington Bureau Chief of the Huffington Post, thank you. Rick Piltz, thank you as well.
RG: Hope for change.
RP: Keep hope alive.
* * *