People, planet, and the path ahead
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy talks at a public event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, on Dec. 5 in Washington.
Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

EPA chief voices cautious hope as Trump inauguration nears

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Although Trump and Obama agendas differ, some forces tilt toward continuity, Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sounded a note of hope Monday in response to concerns that US environmental policy could face upheaval as control shifts from a Democratic to Republican presidency.

She pointed to two key factors – the momentum of marketplace forces and the tendency of all Americans to support clean air and water – that could tilt the Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump toward a bit more continuity than many observers may be expecting.

"EPA's mission is a nonpartisan mission," Ms. McCarthy said at an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. "It's just about public health. People like clean air and clean water and healthy land."

She voiced hope that even the Trump team, though so far voicing little love for things like action on climate change or limits on fossil fuels, will have an EPA influenced by those public concerns.

"They'll figure it out," McCarthy said in one of her first public appearances since Mr. Trump's election. "I'm not going to make judgments [on people] based on what was said during the campaign. I think we have to respect the right of the next administration to make its own choices."

Those choices, she added, will be influenced not just by ideology or personal opinions but by a marketplace in which renewable energy has been growing increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.

All this doesn't mean the incoming Trump administration can't and won't chart its own course on energy and the environment. In fact, McCarthy noted that “just one individual” from Mr. Trump’s transition team has contacted the EPA before Thanksgiving.

“We have not heard from them since,” she said.

Mr. Trump is considering a handful of candidates to replace McCarthy at EPA who have fought many of the regulations the Obama administration has crafted. The Republican candidates include Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt; Kathleen Hartnett White, the former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer (and, until recently, lobbyist) at Bracewell Law who was the EPA air chief under former president George W. Bush.

McCarthy, however, downplayed concerns that her successor might throw her work at the agency into the dustbin.

“I don’t think you can evaluate anybody looking for the administrator’s position by anything that’s stated in a campaign until folks govern. And I’m not going to make judgments on individuals on the basis on what was said during a political campaign,” McCarthy said. “The next administration has to do their job as well and follow the science and the law. And that’s how they’re going to be judged.”

Some experts, speaking at a panel following the Monitor event, also saw pressures that could give a nudge toward the political center.

Nuance for Obama, and now for Trump?

"The Trump administration is actually going to inherit a really strong energy system," and a nation that has seen "unexpected reductions in energy use," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He sees a path by which the Trump administration might be a sort of mirror image of the Obama one.

Mr. Grumet said Obama oversaw a ramp-up of action on climate change and investment in clean energy, while attempting not to "mess up" the nation's overall energy production that includes fossil fuels. Trump has positioned himself as a booster of fossil fuels, but may seek not to "mess up" the progress on greenhouse-gas reductions, Grumet said.

With many corporations concerned about the risk that climate change poses to their investments, "I think this is going to be a little bit less of an extreme change than you might have been led to imagine," Grumet said.

Scott Segal, an expert on environmental policy at Bracewell Law in Washington, added that he expects the Trump administration “is going to be very helpful to the nuclear sector.”

Nuclear power, while not the favorite clean energy among environmentalists, is seen by many energy experts as a vital piece of an overall strategy for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in the news, and noted by the panelists: The president-elect’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has voiced support for taking action on climate change. Her influence could become a force that counterbalances some of those on the Trump team who have been skeptical of the need to curb emissions.

Donald and Ivanka Trump discussed climate change with former vice president Al Gore, a leading advocate on the issue, in a meeting Monday in New York, with Mr. Gore saying afterward that it was "extremely interesting ... and to be continued," according to news reports. [Editor's Note: This paragraph was changed to give an update on the meeting.

A key uncertainty: Clean Power Plan

The fate of Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) remains a central question to be resolved. That effort by the EPA to set state-level targets for emission reductions is in court, being challenged by many states that argue it’s federal over-reach.

McCarthy touted the CPP as a directive that followed down a path that market forces were already taking the country – thanks to the switch from coal toward natural gas, and the rising appeal of solar and wind power. But she also said the CPP had played an important role, as policy, in showing the US could credibly promise to make emission cuts as part of a global treaty.

US and Chinese leadership helped push the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate over the finish line, with the bulk of the world signing on and then moving to ratify the accord.

“It’s a signal of the US commitment on leadership, and it’s made a big difference in terms of our ability to get an international deal of great significance,” McCarthy said. “It was exciting to watch."

“Right now if you just look at it as a whole, looking at the emissions in 2015, you will see that the emissions across the country are already below the levels we anticipated in our first compliance period in 2022, seven years ahead,” she said. “They’re lower than what we would have anticipated in 24 states, already beating those levels, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Dakota.”

Mr. Segal, however, said larger macroeconomic and technological trends provided a stronger signal than the CPP. He also noted that the CPP doesn’t permit a truly free energy market. That’s because it created a forward march toward less carbon-intensive energy by setting enforceable targets, pushing utilities and states to invest in those fuels no matter what that energy cost.

“Now, so what is the ... purpose of the CPP? Well, here is the answer: It is to lock in what the market is doing,” Mr. Segal said. “And I want to suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that is not how a free market works.”

McCarthy said it’s possible for the US to meet its Paris promises even if the CPP were no longer in place.

But the fate of that initiative, both in court and in the hands of a Republican-controlled White House and Congress, could be very important, Segal and others say.

With or without the CPP, though, people involved in climate policy are going to have to rethink how the US can cut emissions to meet the targets that climate models say are necessary to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change, said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and a former deputy EPA administrator.

“I think that there are many different ways to deal with greenhouse gases. I think what we need is a robust discussion on how to do it,” Mr. Perciasepe said. “It’s coming, regardless. The Clean Air Act cannot get us there to the middle of the century the way it is now.”