President Bush's top environmental adviser, Jim Connaughton, discusses the White House's legislative strategy for its controversial Clear Skies initiative with E&E Daily senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn. The chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality also makes the case that the Senate should have no problem dealing with the confirmation of Bush's eventual U.S. EPA administrator nominee at the same time it tackles the air pollution legislation. This is the first of two scheduled OnPoint appearances by Connaughton this week.
Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Today we're joined by Jim Connaughton, the senior environmental adviser to the president at the White House, and Darren Samuelsohn, senior energy reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Thank you both for being here.
Jim Connaughton: My pleasure.
Colin Sullivan: Mr. Connaughton, I'd first like to start with the president's second term agenda. You have a pretty ambitious environmental agenda for the second term, Clear Skies, energy, ESA, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The conventional wisdom says if you're going to move this stuff you have to move it pretty early in the session. Do you think it's realistic to say that you can move these things through Congress earlier on?
Jim Connaughton: I think we can make great progress on a number of the issues. I think some will take greater development. I think the air legislation is critical, and I think it will move this session of Congress. I think you'll see significant movement on components of the oceans legislation, which you left off your list, but ocean policies are a real priority for this year, certainly on both sides of the aisle up on the Hill and for the president as well. And then the energy bill, the House is already moving it and it went through fast and early last time, it's a question of how it finishes on the energy side. Issues like endangered species, the House is very interested in it. I think that will take much further development, not unlike the last Congress where a lot of time was spent on Healthy Forests, but it was spent working out in the regions with the constituencies on a bipartisan basis to see if we can come up with a sensible management strategy.
Colin Sullivan: Now, the other day Senator Voinovich, who is the chair of a subcommittee over Clean Air, said he'd like to see Clear Skies move within the first six months of the session in order to see it move, otherwise he might move to table it. What do you think about that time frame? Is that realistic?
Jim Connaughton: Actually the time frame is important because we need the Clear Skies legislation to give the states the most powerful tool they're going to have to meet the tough new air-quality standards that we've imposed on them. They have to meet standards for ozone, which exacerbates respiratory illnesses and they have to meet standards for particulate matter, which is sort of a new level of controls that the states have not had to achieve before. Clear Skies will be their most powerful tool for meeting those standards.
Darren Samuelsohn: I'd like to keep on Clear Skies for a couple of minutes since this is something that you've put up there at the top of your agenda. Can you, first off, just restate for the record, last month President Bush and Mike Levitt made a decision to hold off on the CAIR Rule, which they were planning to do before the end of the year, until March. Can you restate the record, I mean, is the administration going to finalize CAIR in March? Is it going to be March 15, March 30, no matter what the administration will finalize CAIR wherever Congress is?
Jim Connaughton: We're going to move forward with the regulatory approach, but the regulatory approach falls far short of what the states would benefit from in meeting these new health base standards. So we're on a parallel track, we move forward with the regulatory piece, we move forward the legislative piece.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that --
Jim Connaughton: Again, we did the same thing, Healthy Forests, the legislation got started, we moved forward with some regulatory components, the legislation overtook it, in fact, locked it in and made it even better and made it better to meet everybody's needs.
Darren Samuelsohn: Did Capitol Hill though, show reluctance once you put rules into place?
Jim Connaughton: Well no, actually what happened is we were able to define what we were doing and people had a much higher level of assurance that it actually had a good ecological end point to it and was going to deliver real results. Once they could see, in specific detail, how effective the program would be in meeting the environmental end point that actually brought more support from the Hill, not less.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK, how about in terms of the strategy that's been going on the Hill, in terms of the Senate moving first and the House sort of staying back? Don't you think maybe it might be better if the House, which has a stronger GOP majority, might move Clear Skies first and then the Senate following?
Jim Connaughton: Given the clamoring that's going to come from the states about the need for this tool, I think it's a fair judgment that you'll see both houses of Congress moving this year on it. Senator Barton has made clear he wants to get the energy bill out first. Senator Inhofe and Voinovich have made clear they want to get the Clean Air piece out, and I think once those are both out they can then switch and you'll see the House move pretty quickly on Clean Air legislation.
Darren Samuelsohn: Clear Skies was just recently reintroduced this year and there are some changes from last year's bill. Originally staff said that there were minor technical changes, but at least one thing has come up and it allows additional industries, not just power plants, into the Clear Skies cap-and-trade program. It looks like industrial boilers and plywood manufacturers, on some level, can participate. Is this a signal that Clear Skies might open up to other industries besides power plants?
Jim Connaughton: What you're talking about, Darren, is we have the mandatory cap that will cut pollution from power plants by 70 percent. They're then working on something called an "opt in" for industries that want to participate and take a pretty significant pollution reduction, they can voluntarily opt into the more effective cap-and-trade program. Otherwise they will be regulated and subject to state-by-state regulation for meeting the remaining increments of pollution reductions needed to meet the new air standards. So it'll give them a choice. Either way, they'll be part of the process we need to cut air pollution. The question is which will be more effective for them?
Darren Samuelsohn: That sounds like there's four, I mean is it possible that you might see more come in?
Jim Connaughton: I don't know how the negotiations are going on as to specifically how that "opt in" will be constructed, so I couldn't prejudge that right now.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK.
Colin Sullivan: Now our analysis at this point indicates that if you had a vote today on Clear Skies, in the EPW Committee, the vote would be deadlocked at nine to nine and our analysis may be wrong, but that aside, Democrats are saying they'd like to see a vote on a carbon amendment in order to support Clear Skies going forward or to support the process moving forward. Does the administration support at least having a vote either in committee or on the Senate floor on carbon this year?
Jim Connaughton: Let me take the first part first, which is this, you have a Senate committee that agrees that a cap-and-trade approach with a mandatory cap and a mandatory pollution reduction in a couple of phases, agrees that that is better than the approach we would otherwise be using. So they agree that we should expand the best program under the Clean Air Act. You also have, on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats agreeing that the cut should at least be 70 percent. Now there's some that want to go a little further, but that's a remarkable place to be in terms of bipartisan agreement on a tool and on a massive pollution cut from the power plant sector, really for the first time since acid rain 12 years ago, 13 years ago. On the carbon side there is a ton of activity related to reducing greenhouse gases and technologies related to that in the Senate and the House as we speak. The renewable energy tax credits, the ethanol provisions of the energy bill, the push for expansion of nuclear, the new natural gas pipeline that will bring natural gas down to the Pacific Northwest, every one of those have massive greenhouse gas reduction implications and are real action oriented. So the administration's view is, "Let's work on those programs that actually have real consequence in specific sectors, to reduce greenhouse gases." The benefits of the Clear Skies policy are undermined if you pursued a cap on carbon in the context of Clear Skies.
Colin Sullivan: But does that mean that you don't allow a vote on a carbon amendment to go forward if it comes to the Senate floor or if it looks like Clear Skies is coming to the Senate floor and there's going to be a big confrontation on the floor over carbon, over an amendment, either Jim Jeffords' bill or Senator Carper's bill or even John McCain's climate change bill. Does that mean you shelve Clear Skies, go with EPA regulation and not have that fight?
Jim Connaughton: Well, on the issue of carbon, I think, we can rest assured that this year and next year and for the decade that comes there will be active engagement and discussion on meaningful approaches on addressing carbon in the Senate, in the House, it's a given. Our main concern is the states need these pollution reduction cuts, these are the pollutants that are actually causing significant human health issues. Our concern is that this very effective and simple program for reducing harmful air pollution will be held hostage to this longer-term issue that we have to deal with in the context of climate change. And so, we think the track on harmful pollution should happen on its own and the climate change discussion should also be had, but occur on a track that is looking at it in a more coherent and comprehensive fashion.
Darren Samuelsohn: On a short-term basis, thinking about the opening at the EPA, I'm curious, people are wondering if President Bush were to put somebody forward right now it could distract the Senate environment committee from dealing with Clear Skies. Is there at least that sort of thinking going on right now that opposition to an EPA administrator nomination process might sidetrack you from this other very important priority that you've stated?
Jim Connaughton: The president will make his decision and the timing on his decision on EPA on his own time. However, I'm hopeful that the Congress, just like the administration must, can walk and chew gum and juggle at the same time. I would imagine that the EPA nominee, the very thing the EPA nominee will be charged with accomplishing first is Clear Skies legislation. So I actually see a complement, if the timing works out that way, to having them both happen at the same time. I would hope the Senate can consider the qualifications of a new EPA nominee and at the same time they can do the final work on what has been a three-year debate on Clear Skies. It's not as if this is something new on the agenda. We've been at it for some time now.
Darren Samuelsohn: You're named, pretty much first and foremost, as a possible EPA administrator nominee. Are you interested in the job?
Jim Connaughton: I find it flattering that outside observers put me on the list, but decisions about personnel are the president's, not mine. As you know Darren, we've dealt with each other for many years now, I've got a great job working directly for the president in the White House. It's been a heck of a lot of fun, and we've gotten a lot accomplished, so I'm very happy where I am.
Colin Sullivan: Was that a non-denial denial?
Jim Connaughton: I don't make comments on presidential decisions about personnel.
Colin Sullivan: If we can shift the conversation to ANWR. So far, Senator Domenici's talked about doing ANWR through the budget reconciliation process. Senator Majority Leader Frist has talked about the same thing. We haven't heard from the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Gregg. Have you talked directly to Gregg about doing ANWR through the budget process and will that go forward, that strategy?
Jim Connaughton: I haven't been involved in those discussions.
Colin Sullivan: So you're not involved at all with the Arctic drilling conditions?
Jim Connaughton: The Senate sequencing and strategy, that's all talk among them right now. We continue to support opening up ANWR and so we look forward to a path through the Senate and the House for doing that.
Colin Sullivan: But how it's done, how that strategy is determined, the White House is not involved in that?
Jim Connaughton: I'm confident the White House Legislative Affairs has regular discussions about the entire schedule and of course, you know, they're having a retreat right now in West Virginia. The whole schedule, instead of priorities, is being discussed.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK, I'd like ask you about something that's coming up right now and it's the release of Christie Todd Whitman's new book, It's My Party Too. She says a lot about the first two years in the administration. It's perhaps one of the closest looks we've got at what happened in those first two years, from her, in a very candid way. One of the really early on quotes that she gives in her chapter about the environment is she mentions several places where issues, such as chemical security, New Source Review, climate change and the energy task force, things were going on that she wasn't too happy about and the quote was, "Unfortunately, our efforts in this direction, which had produced some impressive results," I think she's talking about the Republican Party and environmental issues, "have been overshadowed by those in the administration and in key leadership roles in Congress who never seem to miss an opportunity to dismiss environmental protection as a priority." She's talking about trying to move forward in sort of the vein of the old Republican Party in environmental issues. She's critical of the administration in other places as well, as I mentioned those couple of examples. Your thoughts on what she has to say now and specifically, some of the criticism that she has leveled.
Jim Connaughton: Well, I have high regard for Governor Whitman. We worked very closely together. When I came in, I came in June of 2001 and she had been under way for some time. I helped her through her Cabinet conformation process. What I thought interesting about what I've heard from the book, I haven't seen it yet and I haven't read it yet, but the point she's making about the folks at one end of the political spectrum, she appears to be making with the same force that she made in her outgoing op ed in The New York Times with respect to the folks on the far left as well. What I think is reflective of that is where we struggle, we who work on environmental issues and making the next generations of progress, is that we work in that constructive center and so the folks on the left and the folks on the right are often the most heard, but actually it's the folks who are out getting the work done on the ground, I mean, they're the ones who aren't heard, but are actually accomplishing real goals and you find them on the Republican side of the aisle and you find them on the Democratic side of the aisle. I think really, from what I've heard about her book, it seems to me that that's consistent certainly with the philosophy she and I have shared over the years.
Darren Samuelsohn: Are you pleased that it came out after the election as opposed to before the election?
Jim Connaughton: I'm a fan of information and insight whenever it comes. It's all part of the big pot of policy debate and political intrigue. Her timing was her own and her publishers.
Colin Sullivan: You seem to be saying then that Republicans get a bad rap on the environment, whereas former Governor Whitman was sort of saying that Republicans need to do more to come back to the middle and be seen as the middle. I'm not sure if that's what --
Jim Connaughton: Again, I haven't read the book. I can only speak from my experience with Governor Whitman and it's this and we've shared this. You know, we got brownfields legislation passed unanimously. How many Americans who don't have brownfields that's being dealt with really knew that? It's a huge piece of legislation. The Healthy Forest legislation was deemed to be controversial, but it was voted for 81 to 14 in the Senate. In fact, the only senators who voted against it were the ones that didn't have forest health issues, massive bipartisan. We had a farm bill set of conservation programs, a $40 billion farm bill for conservation, that's doubling, it's bigger than any other country, the rest of the countries of the world combined do. You never heard about it. You don't hear about it because there's consensus across the aisle, that this is the smart thing to do, to empower our farmers, our livestock producers to do more conservation on their working lands. The president's 5 million acre Wetlands Restoration Initiative, there's huge bipartisan support for that and the programs we have in place to achieve that. You don't hear about it very much and again these great bipartisan accomplishments, because there's no controversy. That's what I think Governor Whitman has been and is frustrated with. It's certainly something I'm frustrated with because the real foot soldiers of environmental accomplishment are not getting the recognition they deserve and therefore are not creating the inspiration that will bring others to these kinds of programs.
Darren Samuelsohn: To just pick on one more detail from her book, she mentions that the president maybe didn't push hard enough for Clear Skies in its first two or three years. She mentions that it's only mentioned a handful of times on the White House Web site as of the time she wrote this book. She also mentions that maybe the administration could have offered New Source Review reform as a carrot in order to move Clear Skies and that idea never really went very far, she says, in the White House. Were you opposed to that and do you remember her bringing those ideas to you and where did that go?
Jim Connaughton: In terms of the president's support for Clear Skies, he campaigned on it, he launched it four months after September 11 very early on into his term. It's something that required a lot of technical development. We got legislation out the door within six months, which is incredibly fast track for a piece of legislation of this high consequence. We're talking about a $52 billion regulatory mandate on a major sector. And then he featured it prominently in the 2003 State of the Union. So within the course of less than a year the president had it teed up in the State of the Union and then did a series of events related to Clear Skies. From where I sit, in the interagency effort and the Executive Office of the President, the president has put as much personal capital into Clear Skies as he had on many of our other priorities. And stay tuned, this is an important priority for us and so stay tuned. In addition, you had Governor Whitman, Governor Lovett and you had me. In terms of my focus, I was out there heavy on Healthy Forests and I've been out there relentlessly on Clear Skies as well. You had Secretary Abraham pushing Clear Skies. You often don't see multiple Cabinet officers pushing things, so we're out there. We're pushing hard, you know, and it's a hard push.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that the continuity issue of seeing Whitman leave and having to go through another confirmation process with Levitt and now again, that that might be a hindrance as well or has it been a hindrance?
Jim Connaughton: Fortunately it hasn't been because Mike Levitt was able to really push this forward through December, and we got all the substance up to the point in terms of really getting the shape of the legislation and getting the shape of support for the legislation. You know, that carried us all the way through December and now the hearings are starting.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK.
Jim Connaughton: Now I'm going to be testifying on Wednesday because there won't be an EPA administrator in place, but I would hope that's a strong signal about how much the White House cares about this, is they're sending the White House guy to testify and not just leaving it to EPA.
Colin Sullivan: I realize this might be something, switching the subject, that might be out of your purview but as a potential next administrator at EPA, Tom DeLay has a plan to eliminate the VA/HUD subcommittee and take EPA funding and put it under Interior and there's a couple of other things that would completely shakeup how environmental spending is pursued through the appropriations process. Do you have a concern with that plan? Are you familiar with that plan? Do you have a statement on that plan?
Jim Connaughton: Well, did I get your question right? You said Tom DeLay might be a potential EPA administrator?
Colin Sullivan: No, no you're the candidate. Tom DeLay I don't think is interested in the job, no.
Jim Connaughton: I just read about that in Greenwire today so I have to take a look at what they're speaking about. I had not heard that.
Colin Sullivan: Well, there's some concern that --
Jim Connaughton: Let me speak philosophically though about it. We've worked hard, in the administration, to do a better job of making sure that the Department of Agriculture is talking to the Department of Interior is talking to EPA and is talking to NOAA, because those four agencies have a massive overlap in environmental performance agenda. And in fact, the combination of tools they have to achieve particular outcomes is more powerful than any single tool they have. So if you asked me would it make sense to get the same committee looking at Interior's budget and EPA's budget, would there be a good logical reason for that, for the reason I just described, the answer to that is yes. We have no view on this, the administration, you know, I just heard about it today, but it struck me, wow, maybe they're thinking along similar lines. I can't say anything more about it.
Darren Samuelsohn: So an environmental agency subcommittee is something that sounds like a good idea? Not to take things too far but --
Jim Connaughton: Yeah, I really couldn't take that further because I don't know what they're proposing. I don't know what their rationale is. It may have something completely unrelated to what I just described. You know other reasons up on the Hill for how they manage things. But, when we budget, now in the Bush administration, we do take a look at what are the agricultural programs doing to help wetlands and what are the NOAA programs doing to help wetlands and what is EPA doing to help wetlands? Which ones are working better? Which ones can be combined to produce a particular outcome? To have the Congress look at the same way would be very powerful from a good government perspective.
Darren Samuelsohn: I just, President Bush is going to be giving his State of the Union address here very soon, get your thoughts, I mean it's a first opportunity in the second term to talk about energy and environmental issues, I mean, how much time do you think he'll give and what kind of things do you think he might want to talk about on this issue, if anything?
Jim Connaughton: I think we'll wait to hear from the president Wednesday night.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK.
Colin Sullivan: OK, we're going to have to let that be the last word. We're out of time. Mr. Connaughton, thank you very much for joining us. Darren, thank you for joining us. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.
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