From new leadership to Clean Power Plan, subtle shifts ripple through EPA

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Flames, steam, and exhaust rise from the Suncoke Jewell plant in Oakwood, Va. The plant burns coal to make coke, which is used to make steel. The EPA’s proposed replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan hasn’t been made public yet, but it reportedly shifts the targets from overall emissions reductions to a focus on making individual coal-fired plants more energy efficient.
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The change in leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has gotten a lot of attention, in part due to how polarizing former administrator Scott Pruitt was. Andrew Wheeler, the new acting administrator, plans to stick to the same policies – which include rolling back Obama-era climate policies such as the Clean Power Plan and tougher vehicle emissions standards. He does, however, promise a change in tone and tactics. And one shift seems to be already under way in the Trump administration: a less combative stance on climate science. That may not mean much in the absence of federal climate action, say detractors, but it does allow for more meaningful dialogue about possible solutions. “The real issue has always been not whether the climate is changing but what do we do about it,” says Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Shifting the discussion to that arena is a better place for it to be.”

Why We Wrote This

Tumult in the administrator's seat of the EPA has dominated recent headlines. But under the surface, modest shifts in tone and tactics could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about climate policy.

The sudden resignation of Scott Pruitt from the Environmental Protection Agency, following months of ethics investigations and allegations of misbehavior, has prompted a flurry of speculation about where his successor might lead the agency.

The new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, while not promising any significant shift in policies, is likely to bring differences in tone and tactics. Those changes, in turn, may hint at a modest but significant shift that appears to be already under way within the agency and the Trump administration: a less confrontational stance on climate science.

“Over time the fervent deniers [of human-influenced climate change] are being pushed out” of the administration, says David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank promoting an open and free society. The shift, he says, is a subtle one. But, “maybe they are admitting that, at least as a legal matter, this is now established.”

Why We Wrote This

Tumult in the administrator's seat of the EPA has dominated recent headlines. But under the surface, modest shifts in tone and tactics could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about climate policy.

That change is unlikely to derail the focus on rolling back regulations, a core tenet of the Trump administration. No one expects Mr. Wheeler to change course on unraveling Obama-era emissions restrictions for power and transportation. But abandoning the overt attacks on climate science could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about policy to address the threats of climate change.

A key priority for the agency since President Trump took office has been dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Barack Obama’s signature mechanism for reducing emissions, under the aegis of the Clean Air Act. But there was significant debate over whether the EPA would seek to scrap the rule completely, or replace it with something weaker.

Ultimately, those advocating for the latter won, and on Monday, the agency sent its proposed replacement to the White House for a review. The plan hasn’t been made public yet, though it reportedly shifts the targets from overall emissions reductions to a focus on making individual coal-fired plants more energy-efficient.

One reason for offering a replacement: Some in the agency were concerned that not doing so could lead to lawsuits against the EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gases, which in 2009 were determined to pose a threat to human health. While many conservatives, including Mr. Wheeler, disagree with that “endangerment finding,” fighting it in court – where it has already been unsuccessfully challenged – would likely be a losing battle.

“To folks in industry, we see [replacing the CPP] with a realistic approach as more sustainable,” says Frank Maisano, a partner at Bracewell's Policy Resolution Group, which does lobbying for energy industry clients. “You're going to put in place something that hopefully will last longer.”

A bargaining chip?

Even many climate activists think the CPP was an imperfect solution – a way to use existing legislation in a somewhat clunky way, given the failure of Congress to craft a bill that more directly targets climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

And its targets – a 32 percent cut in America’s carbon emissions from the power sector by 2030 – were fairly weak, with many states already on track to exceed them simply due to the rise of renewable energy and the market forces that have caused many coal plants to close.

One use for the CPP in the future, in fact, may be more as a bargaining chip that could be used to push Congress to enact climate legislation, says Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Any weakened standards will likely have no real effect on emissions reductions, he says, but keeping the rule “matters from a legal perspective because any future administration may want to use the same tool” as a way to prod Congress toward meaningful action.

Meanwhile, some observers say that if, in fact, the replacement rule moves to a plant-by-plant determination, as has been reported, in the long run it could be worse for industry.

The CPP’s look at the overall electricity system allowed for a variety of means to find the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions, says Daniel Lashof, the US director of the World Resources Institute, a global organization that promotes environmental sustainability and other goals.

“The irony of what they appear to be trying to do is it seems like it’s the opposite of what industry would actually want,” says Mr. Lashof. “In the short run, it’s a do-nothing rule, but the odd result is that if you stay within that framework, and decide you want to do what the law requires,” it would end up being a far more expensive way to achieve reduced emissions.

Another area where Wheeler will be closely watched is the direction he takes on vehicle emission standards – particularly important given that transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Mr. Pruitt promised not only to roll back the tougher Obama-era standards that had been negotiated with automakers, but also to challenge California and other states’ right to set their own, stricter standards.

“It will be very important to see what Wheeler decides to do on that, whether he negotiates with California in good faith or continues down that road,” says Lashof.

Changes in tone

Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA was marked from the beginning by combative and secretive overtones; the former administrator had sued the agency 14 times as attorney general of Oklahoma, and quickly moved to try to repeal many signature Obama-era rules. He won accolades from Trump, and some conservatives, for his quick movement to roll back regulation, but those actions weren’t always well thought through, and some have already been overturned in court.  

By contrast, Wheeler is considered lower profile and a Washington insider. He was a lobbyist for the coal industry as well as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe, (R) of Oklahoma, a prominent climate change skeptic, but also began his career as staffer at the EPA who worked on toxic chemical issues. In Wheeler’s first weeks at the EPA earlier this spring, he reportedly spent time meeting with longtime staffers, and he told The Wall Street Journal that he was hoping to “depoliticize” some environmental issues. “You might see a shift in terms of how I talk about some things,” he told the paper.

“He’s a professional,” says Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, as well as a former EPA employee and consultant. “He’s going to be more temperate and more moderate in his approach [than Pruitt], but he’s going to do as little as possible” when it comes to climate action or other environmental protections. [Editor's note:  An error in Professor Cohen's title has been corrected in this paragraph.]

Still, if Professor Cohen and others are critical of the direction this administration’s EPA has taken, they see other reasons to hope.

Cohen notes that some polls have shown a majority of Republicans believe climate change is occurring, with numbers steadily increasing, and notes that while many Americans may not like regulation, they do like clean air and clean water.

“There’s really no support for ending federal environmental law,” Cohen says, and those laws provide a strong framework that makes undoing some of the environmental gains challenging.

On a congressional level, more Republicans in Congress have been joining the Climate Solutions Caucus, which now has 42 GOP House members alongside 42 Democrats supporting bipartisan action on the issue.

What’s more, Janet Peace, senior vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, says corporations have grown more active over the past 18 months. Some have set targets for buying renewable energy and reducing their carbon footprints. Others have issued climate-risk disclosure reports for their companies.

“There was maybe some complacency during the Obama administration,” says Ms. Peace. “Now you see kind of this groundswell” of companies who are leaning into the issue.

And at the state and local level, momentum is continuing to reduce emissions – in some cases due to locally set targets, and in some cases simply due to market forces, which have made energy sources like wind much more attractive.

Peace and others say that they’re encouraged by those local actions, though they’re not a substitute for federal action.

Partisanship is a big hurdle. But observers note that that the idea of a “red team, blue team” debate about climate science, which Pruitt once championed, was abandoned. They say the move away from confrontational attacks on the science of climate change can hopefully help move dialogue in a more constructive direction.

“The real issue has always been not whether the climate is changing but what do we do about it,” says Cohen. “Shifting the discussion to that arena is a better place for it to be.… If debate focuses on what we can do about the problem, that can’t help but be a healthy thing.”

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