Advocates for a carbon tax continue to make their case for action on Capitol Hill, but U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson insisted today that the Obama administration has already embarked on a legislative strategy focused on passing a cap-and-trade bill.
Speaking to reporters in her Washington office, Jackson pointed to the president's budget plan, released yesterday, which spells out some basic parameters that Obama wants to see in U.S. climate policy.
"I don't know the administration is capable of putting an end to a debate," she said. "It usually takes two people to make a debate. But I think there was a strong statement in the budget message about climate and it wasn't just that it shows revenue, but if you look at the EPA budget in general, the verbiage that went along with it had some fairly significant language, I thought, on climate, and I don't know, principles may be too strong a word, but some fairly strong statements on climate."
Jackson continued, "One of them was 'market based.' And I believe 'cap and trade' was in there, as well. You know, the president has been clear he believes that's the way to go. I don't think that if there was a supermajority that thought a tax was the way to go, we would, that would mean it's dead on arrival. But I think that would be a subject of discussion. I'm not sure how realistic that is."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut is one of the most vocal supporters of a carbon tax as the primary vehicle to deal with greenhouse gases. The six-term lawmaker, who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, questions whether a cap-and-trade program will have sufficient oversight as it distributes billions of dollars in government revenue.
Larson insisted in an interview earlier this week that a carbon tax should not be dismissed, even with the support for cap and trade among the Obama administration and other Hill Democratic leaders. "I don't think it has pushed to the side at all," he said.
'One eye at all times on the Hill'
As the Capitol Hill climate debate unfolds, Jackson said she plans to pursue her own suite of climate regulations even while Congress crafts a cap-and-trade bill, saying she sees "the two efforts happening concurrently."
"I don't think it's one or the other," Jackson said. "Not now. As we sit here today, that there is no legislation that either pre-empts or makes moot any regulatory efforts on the part of this agency. And as long as that's the case, we're going to be deliberate. We're going to be thoughtful. We're going to have one eye at all times on the Hill so we're not doing that to say, 'Other efforts be damned.' In fact, we're doing it to say the work we're doing probably has a lot to do with informing these issues."
Jackson's EPA faces perhaps its biggest test over the next two months as it kick-starts the regulatory response to climate change by preparing a "endangerment finding" that links climate-changing emissions to increased threats to public health. The Supreme Court in April 2007 ordered EPA to reconsider its decision against issuing an endangerment finding, and Jackson has been quoted saying she would consider issuing her response around the decision's two-year anniversary.
Speaking today, Jackson cautioned against holding her too firm to a specific deadline, or for that matter to a decision in one direction or another.
"On endangerment in particular, I think it's important that we not focus on any individual date," she said. "Somehow, I think in one interview I mentioned that I'm very mindful that we're approaching two years on April 2 and suddenly that's become carved in stone. I don't think that's helpful and probably was certainly not my intention in saying that."
But Jackson quickly added, "That being said, I also want people to know that it's very much something that people are waiting for this agency to speak on, one way or another. And quite clearly the Supreme Court has an expectation that we will. They told us that we should. And so we owe that information and that finding, or finding that it doesn't endanger to the American people."
As the Obama EPA does its work, Jackson acknowledged she is reviewing a Bush-era endangerment finding that the White House blocked from public release. She said her focus is on writing a new document that takes into account the threats to poor communities from global warming.
"It is a jumping-off point," she said. "But one of the places where I believe we need more information, that that document didn't address, is on disproportionately impacted communities and the impact on populations on the public health side, because you remember it's public health and welfare. And so we're looking at both of those."
No public release of Bush docs -- for now
Jackson said she was reluctant for now to release the Bush-era materials, which have been the subject of congressional investigations and a pending Freedom of Information Act request from E&E.
"The thinking right now on my part is it needs work," she said. "And I just explained to you one of the places that I think it remains very much a deliberative document. I do know there's incredibly eagerness to see it. But in the initial review of it, I think we'd be better served beefing it up, looking at it, and then making our determination. That will be subject to inter-agency review. So we'll put it out for public comment when the time is right."
Should EPA issue an endangerment finding, its next step would entail a series of regulations addressing greenhouse gases. A large coalition of industry groups and other opponents to new environmental regulations are sure to oppose the rules and have raised alarm that new federal climate rules would affect everything from schools to bakeries.
Jackson acknowledged that she still has some work to do to explain the agency's plans on climate change.
"I'm not concerned about it, but I am concerned that we haven't been able to put people's minds at ease, so clearly we still have a communication problem out there," she said. "When it comes to climate, it's extraordinarily important that we communicate to people and to their elected representatives what the problem is, what we're trying to solve, and how to go about it in a way that doesn't make it feel like either it will be extraordinarily expensive and a wreck to our economy or so big and so far-reaching that it's hard to figure out how to take the first step."
The EPA chief added, "My assurance to all is that I believe we can embark on addressing, moving to a low-carbon future, in a way that wouldn't start with tiny sources and likely not need to ever deal with them, because if you look at the emissions -- and an inventory is something else that we certainly need to move on and I think we'll be moving on shortly -- but when you look at it, you can get an awful lot of return when you look at the big, the big wedges, and of course those are transportation and stationary sources."
Click here to listen to and read the transcript of the interview with Jackson.