"It’s talking about saving money": EPA head Gina McCarthy sounds off on the benefits of climate action

EXCLUSIVE: EPA chief talks to Salon about the Clean Power Plan and why action makes environmental & economic sense

Published July 17, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

Gina McCarthy     (Reuters/Gary Cameron/Jim Urquhart/Photo montage by Salon)
Gina McCarthy (Reuters/Gary Cameron/Jim Urquhart/Photo montage by Salon)

Gina McCarthy just wants you to let her do her job.

As the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there's a lot to do: the EPA is charged with protecting public health and the environment at a time when both -- not to mention our economy, our national security and the planet as a whole -- is facing the unprecedented threat of global climate change. Our Republican-led Congress has made it clear that it's not going to cooperate in any efforts to address this crisis, leaving the agency central to President Obama's ability to implement his Climate Action Plan. When the U.S. enters the global climate talks taking place at the end of this year in Paris, we'll need to be able to point to those regulations to show we're serious about fighting climate change.

McCarthy, for her part, has made sure that we'll have plenty to talk about. In a manner of weeks, the EPA will be releasing the finalized version of its rule for existing coal-fired power plants, a major, hard-won regulation that, in its proposed version, aims to cut emissions from the power sector 30 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. Aside from taking on the country's largest source of climate change-causing emissions, the agency, under McCarthy, has introduced a proposal to limit the climate impact of heavy-duty trucks, and is taking steps to reduce carbon emissions from airplanes and methane pollution from fracking.

All of this is happening, McCarthy is careful to assert, because it's what the EPA is required to be doing. The EPA was created by Congress to write and enforce environmental regulations; the Supreme Court mandated that, under the Clean Air Act, the agency regulate greenhouse gases as an air pollutant. Yet the agency constantly faces accusations of overreach, legal challenges to its rules and attempts, from Congress, to diminish its authority.

McCarthy has little tolerance for that. "I think what people need to recognize," she told Salon, "is that EPA was given not just authority, but jobs to do."

The Administrator spoke with Salon about the EPA's efforts to limit air and water pollution, and about why she's not sweating states' plans to fight the Clean Power Plan or the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the EPA rule regulation mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

I wanted to get straight to the big thing coming up and ask you about the finalized rules coming out for power plants. Is there much more to do on your end? Or are you are mostly preparing the public for their release?

We are still working through the interagency processes. There’s a lot of continued interest in this. We want to make sure that we pay very close attention to the 4.3 million comments and the comments from the other agencies. But you are right, we are getting near the end of the line on this. We are excited to be able to continue to produce a plan that’s really going to reduce carbon pollution, but also represent some really historic action on the part of the United States at this point in time when we need to show leadership going into Paris in December.

Do you see this as key for when we go into the Paris talks?

I think that it is. It’s been key actually since we put the proposal out. It’s changed the international discussion considerably. As you know, we are now working much more closely with China and Brazil, which brings a large part of the world economy into alignment in terms of being willing to take strong action. We do think it’s changed the complexion of the discussion from the get-go, but delivering this, making sure that it remains a significant step forward at the same time as continuing to provide states a really flexible common sense and affordable way of addressing their carbon pollution, I think is going to be essential. This is what you are going to see when you see this final plan.

Obviously there’s going to be opposition to any regulation that’s put out, but specifically, right now there are six governors saying they just aren’t going to comply with the rules. Do you see that as a credible challenge to implementing them?

No. It would be disappointing if any state didn’t take advantage of really what amounts to an incredible invitation given to the states to develop their own plan. But it certainly will do nothing to weaken our ability to deliver these reductions. We have the authority to do that and we will use it. But for the most part states continue to engage and they recognize that doing the plan themselves will be their best bet moving forward to ensure that they do it in a way that continues to grow their economy. But even if we have to federally impose reductions we’ll continue to do this in the most flexible way that we can, so that we can ensure that whether it’s a state plan or a federal plan, it will maintain the reliability and affordability of our energy supply system while we grab those carbon pollution reductions that are really extremely cost effective to grab out of the system at this point.

You've been trying a lot of different approaches to convince the public of the importance of these rules and of other measures to address climate change. There are the health benefits of emissions reductions, there was your report on what a global deal would mean economically, and then most recently you wrote about the Pope and our moral obligation. Is the approach for you to appeal to as many people from as many places as possible? Or is there one that you feel that is most effective?

We actually have been doing such extensive outreach to make sure that everybody’s voice gets heard. There’s two points I would make to the states. One is that doing it themselves would be, I think, enormously beneficial to them. It would allow them to engage their public in this discussion. It also is important to remember that some of the states that are saying they won’t put in a plan have been shown to have very effective strategies for themselves and their citizens to keep their energy prices lower -- and in fact benefit their states from developing a plan and moving forward. And I think we're certainly going to take cognizance of that, and we are hoping that everybody takes cognizance of the fact that we are not asking them to do something that is bad for them. We are asking them to address a challenge that is enormously difficult for them if we don’t attack it now, but also in ways that will be very beneficial to their economies and their energy system.

The second point I want to make is that I think the important message for people is they need to get engaged in helping to make sure that the actions they take are reasonable and appropriate and cost-effective, because they have every opportunity for that. But we also want to make sure that a multitude of voices gets heard. I think that there are individuals that are carrying a lot of the conversation that really don’t represent the vast majority of people in this country, who are already recognizing that we are getting hit with the effects of climate change now. And what the CIRA [Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis] report says is that if we don’t take action domestically in a way that’s going to secure a larger international effort then we are buying into an incredibly uncertain future for our children. That’s what the Pope embraced. I think there are people everywhere that we have been able to reach that are also going to raise their voices similarly and really call for strong action so that we can address our children’s future.

When you talk about those loud voices. the first thing I think of is the coal industry. Obviously there’s not a lot of cooperation from them, but then in other places, like the vehicle fuel efficiency rules, there was some industry cooperation there. I’m wondering is there a way to get the coal industry onboard that you are working towards?

I think the most important thing that we have to do is -- there are two things. We have to make sure that this rule is legally solid, that we are taking the steps that we’ve taken for every other pollutant to reduce the impacts on public health and the environment. We need to stay in our lane and doing this as a normal Clean Air Act rule, because we’ve regulated every other pollutant for utilities and now it’s time to address carbon pollution. As long as we do this in a way that’s reasonable, that sticks within the Clean Air Act -- which we will -- I think that the utility world will respond in a way they always do, which is they will move from fighting into, "How do I make a plan that works for me and ensure that it is reasonable and appropriate?" I think that in every other rule we have been able to work through the concerns of every part of the sector, including utilities that own coal, in order to address those emissions effectively.

I think you saw that in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. We started out with very difficult opposition. We worked through that with the utilities and because of that we have been able to work through a number of other rules related to the utility world with us in a way that we are going to be delivering significant health and environmental benefits -- but doing it in a way that they can achieve and in fact will probably likely go beyond, because there are certainly benefits to a clean energy future, including a modern energy supply system that works for the utilities and works for people in general.

The recent Supreme Court ruling on the mercury rule definitely came as a surprise. Do you worry that you might not have the court on your side in the future?

No. Actually it was disappointing to see that rule, but it was very narrowly crafted. In fact, I think the Court seemed to go out of its way to say what it wasn’t saying as much as saying what it was saying. They very narrowly said that we should have looked at cost in the upfront "appropriate and necessary" finding as opposed to where we looked at it, which was in implementation. But if you look at it as a package, we looked at costs associated with setting the standards themselves, instead of the upfront cost of regulating utilities, but they actually did not take away the rule. They specifically said they weren’t telling us how to look at cost. They specifically said that we had a right to regulate. They did not take up any other factor or concern where everything about the rule was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. They did not take up any of it.

So with the rules still in place, and with utilities already having invested, and with costs in the carbon pollution plan being looked at squarely in the Clean Power Plan, then we don’t really have a lot of concern that that bled over in any way negatively on the Clean Power Plan. In fact, it actually, I think, was pretty supportive of the EPA’s authority in our right to regulate under the Clean Air Act and our right to use discretion under that Clean Air Act. So we will get through the MATS decision because we know a lot of investments have already been made, and we'll be delivering those reductions. But I also know that the Supreme Court didn’t challenge the way we looked at costs, and so the utilities know that with the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard, for every buck we spend we get nine bucks back. That’s pretty cost-effective. If we simply look at that cost upfront we will have resolved the important decision that the Supreme Court made. I think we are okay on that and I think it has literally no spillover into the carbon pollution plan, in how the Supreme Court might look at that. And I think for many reasons that’s a good thing because they didn’t send any signals.

I guess if anything it just shows that the opposition will poke as many holes as it can and challenge every little thing about these rules.

I think we’ve been experiencing that lately. And I think, unfortunately, for many of the utilities -- the vast majority of which know their plan forward under the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard -- it provides a little bit of uncertainty for them. I think all in all that all of us had been better had this decision not come out this way, but we respect the decision of the Supreme Court and will take cognizance of that and will address it.

It’s interesting that the opposition to the recent water rule, also, seemed to be particularly intense for something that didn’t bring in the specific issue of climate change, and was just talking about safe drinking water.

This is where we start to realize that the opposition that you’re seeing in the budget scenario to EPA is not really about some unique thing that this administration is doing. It really is questioning our fundamental ability to protect public health from pollution. It’s disconcerting to think that it’s as sweeping an asset to dismantle EPA as it in fact looks to us from both a budgetary and other perspectives. But on the Clean Water Rule, to me the most disturbing thing about that is that it’s hard to find anyone in the world, certainly in the U.S., who doesn’t understand the value of clean water, and understand that the government’s job is to make sure that that’s protected so that people can have a safe, clean drinking water supply. We spent an awful lot of time in the Clean Water Rule looking at all the comments that came in so that we can assure people that we were making the changes we need to provide the clarity we were intending to provide.

Frankly, I am incredibly proud of the work we did to pay attention to those comments. We are hearing from many people in agriculture, many farmers and ranchers, who really appreciate that. But the opposition is really not coming from the those individual farmers and ranchers. It’s coming from people who decided well before we even started down this road that no matter what we did it would be not good enough or an expansion of jurisdiction. It’s just a common theme that we consistently hear. My best appeal is for people to actually read the rule so they can see that where the overreach is is the folks who are saying we are doing things that we’re simply not doing in the rule.

Obviously a big reason why there is a focus on that idea of overreach is because the Obama administration has had to take so much executive action on climate issues because Congress has been so uncooperative. How much of what you are doing now will be able to stand if there were to be a Republican president in 2016?

I think all of it will be in place. I think what people need to recognize is that EPA was given not just authority, but jobs to do. I think the actions we are taking are within both the authority that Congress gave us and the direction they gave us. This is all consistent with our mission to protect public health and the environment. And much of the actions that people are challenging, like the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard, are things that have been required of the agency for decades. Most of the rules and regulations of this administration have been holdovers because they have not been done right by the prior administration or we have not kept up with absolute mandates that Congress gave us. While some might like to characterize that as overreach, this is doing the business that Congress gave us. Remember, even when we are using our executive authority, Congress still has both a right and a responsibility to look at whether or not they want to weigh in in terms of the Congressional Review Act, to speak to those issues as well. This is not simply EPA or the administration taking action on their own. This is part of the process that’s been in place to do rules and regulations since time immemorial. Maybe not that far, but since the Clean Air Act has been around, every step of this process has been what Congress dictated.

If there’s an administration that isn’t pushing these mandates and isn’t giving the EPA the leeway to do its job, will we still be able to hold up our pledges to reduce emissions? Will we have to look to maybe more state level action? What will our options be in that scenario?

I think that EPA has made some really pivotal decisions that don’t allow us to backtrack and to think about this as being only the state has responsibilities. When we made the endangerment finding on greenhouse gases, that triggered action under the Clean Air Act. That’s going to be an obligation of this and future administrations. When we move forward with the Clean Power Plan, that is going to be based on a record of decision that will now be, I’m sure, challenged to Court, but also changing that would be a challenge to Court. It is not going to be easy for any next administration to undo what we have done.

Take a look at the light-duty vehicle rule. Not only is that being implemented, but it’s being basically filtered into the program plan of every domestic and international car manufacturer. And the industry is doing spectacularly well because they are producing the cars that people want to buy. And people are saving money. So you are building a real constituency under what we have done and under what we are planning to do with heavy duty vehicles. What we are doing with HFC’s. What we are doing with the oil and gas methane rule that’s now under interagency review. All of these are not going to be a detriment to the economy. They are going to grow jobs, they are going to allow us to grow economy, but they are also going to be extremely beneficial to consumers. It’s talking about saving the money.

I think there’s a lot of hurdles for any administration to take back renewables, energy efficiency, highly efficient vehicles, basically ozone depleting substances that don’t need to be used because they generate carbon pollution. How do you undo that without trying to explain to the American people not just that we are backtracking on our moral obligation and their kids’ future if we don’t address climate change, but we are also taking money out of your pocketbooks, making products that are less efficient, forcing you to spend more money on your electric bills, which the Carbon Pollution Plan will reduce -- these are things we think the world will see as steps that are beneficial to everyone and certainly not everything we need to do, but a significant leap forward. The next administration who doesn’t agree with this is going to have to have very high hurdles to explain why the records are different than what we indicated, why the rules would have to be changed, and explain to the American people why they’re backing off of actions that are necessary to protect their kids’ future and actions that have been doing nothing but save them money and continue to grow jobs in the future.

Before we run out of time, I wanted to ask you about the EPA’s study on fracking and water pollution -- just because it seemed to be interpreted very differently depending on who you asked. I was interested in what you would say its main message was?

I think you are right. People wanted to pick whatever they liked as their best message, but this was really a science document, not a policy one. If you really look at it, at the heart of it it says we have gathered a tremendous amount of information working with the states and the industry to take a look at where there are vulnerabilities in the water cycle that are represented from these unconventional exploration fracking operations. So that we are providing a wealth of data on where those vulnerabilities might be. We looked at the data to see whether or not fracking has already impacted water supplies. We did find some discrete instances where that was the case. But we didn’t find systemic problems. In other words, we know that engineering practices and good designs and good use of management of wastewater, is going to be able to be effective in addressing some of those vulnerabilities. But we also pointed out that we did not have a wealth of data. We worked with the data that we had, but that data was limited so we provided as much information as we could.

The next step really is to make sure states have that information as they look at regulating; that’s where Congress determined that regulation and management should happen. And we are going to work with them to show them all the information we gathered on where those vulnerabilities are in terms of the need to protect water supplies, and what our data is, and what we don’t have so that they can continue to regulate this effectively.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Clean Power Plan Epa Gina Mccarthy Paris Climate Talks Power Plant Rules