The President gave an indication of his environmental focus in his inaugural address, and then again in his state of the union speech. The focus would be on climate change.
Central to that focus would be the EPA Adminstrator, but that would not be Lisa Jackson who tendered her resignation at the end of 2012. If Washington gossip is any guide, Ms. Jackson's replacement will be Gina McCarthy, the current head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.
We went looking to see if we could draw a bead on where Ms. McCarthy might lead EPA. We found a recent speech and it was directly on point. On February 21, Ms. McCarthy addressed an audience at the Georgetown Law Center at a conference on Climate Change and Energy Policy. (The conference was videotaped. Ms. McCarthy has the podium from about 4:50 to 5:30 if you are interested.)
Ms. McCarthy has a reputation of being something of a pragmatist. Her talk was consistent with that. A brief summary might be: Climate change is here and we have to deal with it, but in addressing carbon dioxide there can be great benefits from doing so in the form of reducing pollution, increasing efficiency and empowering communities.
Pollution reductions will come in at least three forms. First, if more renewable energy sources are developed, there will be less emissions. Second, if production and use is made more efficient there will be less emissions. Third, if production is focused on fossil fuels that emit less pollutants when burned (that is, not coal), there will be less emissions. We note that this strategy is already at work. The growth of wind and solar power has been meteoric. Ms. McCarthy promoted electric cars, which are far more efficient than gasoline-powered ones (although she ignored compressed natural gas vehicles, which are low emission and have some compelling advantages over electric cars). And we have covered before the catastrophe for coal signaled by the proposed Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, which forecasts not a single new coal plant through 2030.
Significantly, or perhaps not, she did not mention fracking and the phenomenal recent growth in natural gas production. That was surprising. A recent Harvard Magazine article summarized the pollution and greenhouse gas effects of the natural gas bonanza:
The shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector has also yielded an environmental bonus—a significant reduction in emissions of CO2, because CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated using coal are more than double those produced using gas. … [T]he U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that domestic emissions of CO2 during the first quarter of 2012 fell to the lowest level recorded since 1992. An ancillary benefit of the coal-to-gas switch has been a significant reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain, because many of the older coal-burning plants selectively idled by the price-induced fuel switch were not equipped to remove this pollutant from their stack gases.
Efficiency pervaded her remarks. A striking number is the $1.7 trillion she stated automobile fuel efficiency standards had saved consumers at the pump. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. EPA will help Americans make buildings, processes and communities more efficient. According to Ms. McCarthy the EPA Climate Showcase Communities saved $19 million per year based in large part on efficiency.
We are somewhat troubled by the “eye of the beholder” syndrome exhibited here. Certainly consumers saved money at the pump. But they spent more at the car dealer. How did they fare overall? The answer depends on how long they owned their car and the price of gas. According to research in 2012 by TrueCar.com for the New York Times, at $4/gallon “[e]xcept for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.”
Ms. McCarthy’s vision of empowerment is through information. If building owners get the knowledge of how to make their buildings more efficient, they will because it makes sense to do so. If communities are provided the relevant information, they will make enabling smart choices. Indeed, she closed on the importance of information, referencing three sources. First, EPA has now been collecting information on greenhouse gas emissions for two years. That information is publicly available. People should look at this because it identifies the sources of the climate change problem. Electric utilities are far and away the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (which is to say, all of us are because, with rare exceptions, all of us use electricity generated with fossil fuels).
Second, she touted the EPA’s 2012 report, Climate Change Indicators in the United States (18MB). This is a valuable resource. Twenty-six “indicators” are assessed as to what they show about a world beset by climate change. All are familiar with reduced ice sheets, reduced snowpack and higher average temperatures. Less familiar is the documented increase in ragweed pollen season and retained ocean heat. And the report is honest about what is not known. Although 7000 Americans were reported to have died of heat-related illnesses in the last 30 years, trends have not been determined. Although one might think that a hotter world would lead to more hurricanes, the data have not proven that yet.
Last, Ms. McCarthy praised government research into adaptation and the various reports issued and to be issued.
Some view agency heads in Washington as essentially valueless; talking heads, here today and gone tomorrow. The bureaucracy was there when the new head arrived and will be there when the now old head leaves. What this view misses is that the agency head can muster the agency’s resources in support of one initiative, argue for it on Capitol Hill, at the White House and in the press, and give the extra boost when the going gets rough. Gina McCarthy was instrumental in building the northeast’s cap-and-trade program (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) in her native Connecticut. Certainly, that idea on a national basis is percolating again.