McCabe savors role as evangelist for agency’s carbon rules

By Rod Kuckro | 10/28/2015 08:01 AM EDT

These days, Janet McCabe’s workweek pretty much revolves around conversations with other regulators and industry about U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Lots of them and all over the country.

These days, Janet McCabe’s workweek pretty much revolves around conversations with other regulators and industry about U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Lots of them and all over the country.

The acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, McCabe, along with her senior counsel Joe Goffman, is the public face of the agency as it tries to garner support for its controversial, all-encompassing effort to cut back on carbon dioxide emission from the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.


A Harvard University-educated attorney and former Indiana environmental regulator, McCabe projects a serene confidence in the rightness of her agency’s proposed rule and its foundation in the Clean Air Act.

"People are taking this seriously, which they should, and I’m not the least bit surprised that they are. They appreciate, like we do, all of the reasons why these rules are important" to combat climate change and some "very grim possibilities if we don’t do something about it," McCabe said in an interview days before the agency’s rule was published in the Federal Register.

"There are huge air quality concerns that could be addressed as co-benefits of this rule. But there are also implications to the way energy is produced — I think very, very positive ones for an industry that is in transition," she said.

The air quality "co-benefits" of the Clean Power Plan center on the "opportunity" to bring a menu of air rules to the table and "do one big planning exercise, and have it all coordinated," McCabe said.

In addition to the CPP, McCabe mentioned sulfur dioxide rules, ozone standards, regional haze rules, and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that states and utilities are facing. "There are some efficiencies of scale. We need to help the states as much as we can with technical support, so that they shouldn’t have to invent things that we can do for everybody, things like a trading platform," she said.

"We’re talking with states a lot and many, many other stakeholders," McCabe said.

Listening tour

"We started right out of the gate with having opportunities for states to get on the phone with us," she said.

For example, McCabe and her staff have hosted six conference calls on technical aspects of the rule "where they tee up the questions on different topics. Each [call] is a discrete topic. The states identify the topics, and we just go around until they run out of questions on that particular topic," she said.

Janet McCabe
U.S. EPA acting Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe. | Photo courtesy of EPA.

"We’ve made it clear through our regional offices that any state that wants to have a call with us, we’ll set it up. When [former Democratic Colorado] Gov. [Bill] Ritter has a meeting with the [Center for the New Energy Economy] and wants us to come, we send people. And it’s not always Joe and me. It’s often our technical experts on this or that issue," she said.

Still, McCabe is living a peripatetic life. "We were on the road a lot when the proposal went out, and then we backed off as we were finalizing the rule. And now we and others from [the Office of Air and Radiation] are on the road talking to people because it would be helpful for us to go."

McCabe also pointed to all the "convening that’s going on" in the way of meetings sponsored by such groups as Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions "that are helping to bring people together."

"I’m very encouraged by the conversations I’ve been having with the states. And even some of the states that feel particularly challenged by this," she said.

McCabe singled out EPA’s responsiveness to electric utilities in particular. "They’ve made some very clear points to us about what was important to them, if they needed more time, if they needed more flexibility, you know, they needed a series of things to make sure that they could plan. We know that they’re thinking long term, and we think that the final rule was really responsive to those issues that they put on the table. To the extent that they’re comfortable moving forward with it, and can work with their states to find good ways to do it. That’s great," she said.

Cost concerns

McCabe says critics who predict large electric rate increases stemming from compliance efforts need to look at the effects of previous EPA rulemakings "where you’re looking into the future and trying to figure out what might happen."

"There are all kinds of variable that none of us can figure right now. We did our best in our regulatory impact analysis to try to look forward using appropriate tools, and we came up with a good result, which is that over time because of energy efficiency, bills will go down. And we think that there is a lot of stuff built into this long-term trajectory that will allow people to take stock all along the way. And if things are going sour, you figure out a different way to do it," she said.

One way to prevent cost issues is the regional approach to compliance, an approach EPA touts as less expensive and has been discussing with the nation’s regional transmission organizations that operate the grid and dispatch power plants, she said.

But McCabe stressed that states are in the driver’s seat with their ability to develop "trading-ready" plans to ease compliance.

"The states are talking to one another, so I think that those relationships are finding themselves, and I think we can be helpful by making sure that people understand, yes, you know, you can do it that way; you can do this way. It all works," she said.

"I think everybody can get there. That’s what our analysis showed. When you look across regions, and you open things up that everybody can collectively get to where they need to be, and you can do it in a way that’s sensitive to these concerns along the way. [States] have lots of time. Nobody needs to do anything until 2022 at the start," McCabe said.

When her workweek winds down, McCabe returns to her home in Indianapolis, where she has lived since 1993 and from where she commutes to Washington, D.C., every week.

"My mind is on [the Clean Power Plan] a lot. So I go home every weekend, get a little bit of separation. I do work at home. But at least I’m at home, you know, with the dog and the spouse," McCabe said.

"I do think it would be nice to fast-forward to 2030 and see where we are."