In her first interview since Election Day, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy fiercely defended President Obama’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and said states, cities, utilities and major corporations will continue expanding their use of clean energy regardless of how President-elect Donald Trump redirects her agency.
"I don’t feel deflated," McCarthy said about the Nov. 8 election results.
"No one person or no one administration is going to really be able to [make] a significant dent in the trajectory that we already see happening," McCarthy told E&E News. "That change is not going to happen through one administration deciding that they want to change the way in which the world is going."
In the coming weeks, McCarthy’s EPA will start working with a Trump transition team led by Myron Ebell, a well-known skeptic of man-made climate change out of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute (ClimateWire, Nov. 21). In a memo to EPA staff just after the election, McCarthy said "we’re running — not walking — through the finish line of President Obama’s presidency." The agency’s critics took that to mean EPA plans to shove a spate of regulations through the door before Trump’s January inauguration.
"I don’t think we have any surprises" in the final nine weeks, McCarthy said. "I mean, our regulations are out there. People know what we’re working on."
McCarthy’s tenure — at 3 ½ years — ends at a critical time for the agency, with major air and water rules mired in litigation and facing an onslaught of fresh political scrutiny. After the Senate confirmed McCarthy in July 2013, she was thrown into the middle of an escalating battle royal over how to regulate carbon dioxide emissions across the electricity sector. She was tasked with shepherding the agency’s Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate policy, across the finish line before he left office and with enough time to survive the first round of court challenges.
The feisty former EPA air policy chief staked much of her tenure as EPA administrator on getting states, regions and electric utilities with vastly different approaches to energy behind the carbon rule. As McCarthy prepares for her replacement, the rule faces twin headwinds that most analysts consider virtually insurmountable: an antagonistic Trump administration and the likelihood of a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
Corporate automakers have already asked Trump for changes to EPA’s fuel efficiency standards, perhaps a sign of things to come. But McCarthy isn’t putting on hold a final push to strengthen federal regulations around air and water. Last week, EPA published guidelines for complying with a tighter national ozone standard. And the agency is moving forward with major methane emissions guidelines for existing oil and natural gas operations, despite intense Republican opposition.
"Over time, you know, [the Trump] administration, like all others, will learn as it goes on," McCarthy said "And my job is to give them an appropriate transition, and then trust that they’re going to listen and learn as they should, and as any administration should. And then make decisions that are thoughtful.
"I want everybody to just keep doing the work of the agency," she said. "We’re going to do our best to make sure that it’s solid, it follows the science and the law. We’re going to be confident in that, but we will never stop."
Utility of the future
Even if a Trump administration abandons the Clean Power Plan or the global Paris climate accord, McCarthy said, she hopes that a new team of EPA leaders "will see that the efforts that we’ve taken on climate are providing stability in the U.S. in terms of business interests."
McCarthy and her air chief, Janet McCabe, pressed the business case for regulation in 2014 and 2015 as they put the final touches on the Clean Power Plan. Lower-carbon natural gas, carbon-free nuclear power, and flexibility for states or regions to customize plans for meeting emissions targets would be the bridge to cleaner forms of energy technology.
"And so even if this next administration doesn’t want to provide the kind of federal leadership on climate that this administration did, the energy world is still going to go towards clean energy, making a transition," McCarthy said. "The Clean Power Plan acknowledged that we were going in the direction in which the world was heading, not changing that direction.
"Where the utilities are now is far beyond where we anticipated that they would be in terms of investing in clean energy under the Clean Power Plan," she said.
"Utilities are very smart, so resilient," she said. "As soon as the rule is done, and the gun goes off, they run to see how fast they can change what they do and make money on it."
McCarthy said she is "pretty confident" that states and cities will continue to act on climate preparedness. States have been developing renewable portfolio standards and energy efficiency standards for a long time, she noted, even as Washington squabbled over national standards.
"In the absence of federal leadership, what you’re going to see is states continuing to step up," she said.
"If you look at even the states that are most vocal in wanting the Clean Power Plan to go away, they’re still operating in the same clean energy market as the ones that are trying to promote it," McCarthy said. "These are regional issues, not individual state issues, because of the way the energy markets work. They don’t respond to partisan politics because clean air and clean water and clean land is what everybody wants."
McCarthy predicted that large businesses are going "to be increasingly noisy" as more and more are "actively engaged in issues of sustainability and issues of climate change."
"They see it as a tremendous business risk," she said.
‘Value judgments’ left to the states
To regulate carbon emissions, the nation’s environmental regulator has been drawn into the complex world of U.S. electricity markets. There, U.S. states and utilities face a dizzying array of economic forces that have pushed electricity prices down and pitted low-carbon forms of energy against each other. That has put pressure on nuclear power plants, the largest form of zero-carbon baseload electricity in the United States. Analysts today say as much as 15 percent of the nation’s aging nuclear fleet could close ahead of schedule in the next decade.
An E&E News series last week showed how McCarthy and her top advisers handled new information about the troubled nuclear fleet in 2013 and 2014 (EnergyWire, Nov. 17). As EPA developed its carbon rule, they were warned that reactors that were needed to meet carbon emissions targets were under greater threat of closing than had been recognized. EPA acknowledged nuclear power’s role in staving off rising carbon emissions. But in the end, agency officials left out the industry’s major request: a rule that would encourage states to support existing nuclear plants by giving them credit for the zero-carbon energy that relicensed reactors would produce in the future.
The agency grafted into its policy a best-case scenario for nuclear capacity and made a decision to leave the contentious nuclear issue up to politically divided states.
In the interview with E&E News late last week, McCarthy said EPA had considered something "a little bit more aggressive" for nuclear power, but the law limited the ability to act. "And so the simple fact is that we couldn’t do as much as people asked us to do or we had originally thought was appropriate to do," she said, "because of legal constraints and the way the structure of the rule is under the law."
McCarthy said that the preamble to the Clean Power Plan notes that if competitive regional markets didn’t become friendlier to nuclear power, some reactors wouldn’t renew their operating licenses. States have tools, such as direct subsidies for nuclear that are being considered in New York and Illinois, she said. "We made that signal as clear as we could to the states; those are value judgments that are best left up to them," she said.
McCarthy pushed back on the proposition that agency critics have been able to drown out the emphasis on its public health mission and paint EPA as anti-business and a job killer.
"I don’t know whether they’ve been that successful in doing that," she said. "Frankly, I don’t know why they would want to, because a lot of the rules we’ve done — in fact, I would argue, all of them — have been done in a way that advances us economically and allows us to grow. We were just talking about the Clean Power Plan. Where are the jobs in the United States growing right now? It is in clean energy. That’s where you see the advances," she said.
It was easier to talk about clean air and garner support for EPA actions when people thought of the smog in Beijing in the past decade or Los Angeles 20 years ago, she said.
"But now we know just how important from a public health perspective small amounts of particulate are," she said. "And we’re not going to ignore that just because people can’t see it." Calling it "an education issue," McCarthy asserted that the agency is saving lives and preventing illness.
McCarthy said she might leave a note for her successor asking him or her "to take care of an agency that really is vital to this country."
The most challenging thing about the job, she said, is that "even when you’re off, you’re not."
"The states are going to be calling for help," she said. "The business community is going to want permits. Individual communities are going to be worried about pollution and want answers. The main message is, just keep working."
After Inauguration Day, McCarthy plans to return to the Boston area, spend some time with her family and relax. "And then I’ll hit the ground running again," working on climate issues, she said.
"That’s what I hope to do," she said. "I may be leaving, but I’m not retiring."
This story also appears in ClimateWire.