Environmental Law and Policy Center's Learner discusses Midwest's role in climate debate

With the Midwest accounting for nearly 20 percent of the United States' carbon emissions, Midwestern states have a lot at stake in the climate debate. During today's OnPoint, Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, discusses the critical role the Midwest is playing in the Senate's climate discussions. He explains how the Senate can overcome some of the key hurdles involving Midwestern states. Learner, a former adviser to the Obama campaign, also gives his take on the administration's handling of energy and environment issues.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Howard, thanks for coming on the show.

Howard Learner: Glad to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: Howard, the Midwest is playing a critical role in the congressional climate debate and it also accounts for nearly 20 percent of the U.S.'s carbon emissions. You believe that the Midwest can also play a key role in climate change solutions. So, how do you reconcile the large coal and agricultural interests that you have in the Midwest with this push for renewable energy development?

Howard Learner: Well, it's a transition. The Midwest is important for three reasons. First of all, we're a key part of the problem. The largest amount of greenhouse gas pollution comes from coal plants and oil refineries and other polluters in the Midwest. On the other hand, we're the center of some of the very best solutions. There's an enormous amount of untapped energy efficiency in the Midwest, the best, the fastest, the cheapest way of helping to solve our global warming problems. The Midwest is huge when it comes to wind power development, you know, farm income, job creation, rural economic development and good for the environment. So, in both those ways we're part of the problem, but we're a key part of the solution and that's why the Midwest delegation is so important in the federal climate change debate. There are a large number of the swing votes and all of them are trying to reconcile and deal with how do we transition from the old energy economy to the newer and more clean energy economy to create jobs and spur economic growth?

Monica Trauzzi: What are some of the key hurdles the Senate will need to overcome in order to get those votes from the Midwest senators?

Howard Learner: Well, the first is agriculture. We need to find ways in which the agricultural states are winners, not losers and there are a lot of opportunities on that. And Senator Harkin and Senator Lincoln, Senator Stabenow, as well as Congressman Peterson have been working on that. There are very good ways in which the agricultural community, both through offsets, wind power development, sequestration and other techniques can become a very important and vital part of solving our climate change problems. Agriculture needs to be part of the puzzle in terms of how we put together the pieces of the votes for good federal climate change legislation. The second is coal. We need to deal with coal. Coal is part of the problem and you simply can't achieve good carbon pricing, targets, and pollution reduction unless we either find a way to clean up coal or, for the long run, through carbon capture and sequestration, while we're closing down some of the existing coal plants. And you're watching a number of the Midwest senators and the congress people trying to navigate that transition from cleaning up the older coal plants and doing it in a way that transitions reasonably for rate payers. So recently you saw a letter from Senator Harkin and 14 Senate Democrats saying that the formula by which we allocate allowances based on emissions versus electricity use has to be done a little bit differently so it transitions the coal-heavy Midwest in ways that are fair to ratepayers. The third issue of transition, of course, is manufacturing and you're seeing senators like Senator Bayh and Senator Sherrod Brown recognizing the need that we need to transition our manufacturing to be cleaner and more energy-efficient Senator Brown's impact legislation. And we need to find ways in which America leads, but we don't lead in a way that simply our industry is at a competitive disadvantage with industry abroad. America can't give up leading. We're leaders. If we want the rest of the world to solve a common problem, our global warming problems, we need to be leading. We also need to do it with mechanisms that are fair and treat our industry in ways that are appropriate.

Monica Trauzzi: It sounds like there's a lot of work that still needs be done in order to achieve all the goals that you just laid out. I mean is it feasible? Can it be done and can it be done by the first quarter of next year when we might see a floor vote?

Howard Learner: Well, I think what you're seeing is Senator Reid and Senator Kerry, who are our leaders in the Senate, saying this is going to take a little bit more work. And while, of course, we're disappointed that this hasn't moved quicker, this is hard work. This is tough stuff and what it means is we need to keep working to bring the parties around the table and be creative about the solutions and find ways to hit that sweet spot that we can get it done. Nobody ever said this was going to be easy. It's not. We've just got to keep working at it and be persistent and be creative and find the ways that bridge the economy from the old energy economy to a cleaner one that creates jobs and spurs economic growth. And I think what you're seeing is members of the Senate looking at this and looking to find the solutions and the ways that work for them.

Monica Trauzzi: You were an adviser to the Obama campaign on environment issues. One year in, what's your take on how the Obama administration has handled climate and energy up until this point?

Howard Learner: Well, first of all you have to be impressed by what EPA, the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, have all done in terms of moving forward a very proactive, clean energy and environmentally sensible agenda. And even places like the Department of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack has been a leader in working on ways in which the agricultural community can be more environmentally savvy and, at the same time, be a part of a clean energy economy that creates jobs, spurs economic growth and helps reduce pollution. The EPA is doing what EPA must do under the Supreme Court's decision. They've made a science-based endangerment finding. That finding is now at OMB for review. EPA has indicated that it's moving forward with the cars rule, which will be in spring of 2010 and it's moving forward under the tailoring rule for stationary sources. And I think that's the right approach. First of all, it's the approach that EPA should do based on the science and based on the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. But EPA is also doing it in a thoughtful way. The tailoring rule makes sense with regard to regulating CO2 from many, many sources, focus on the biggest sources first. Hopefully Congress will move forward and reach a way of dealing with carbon dioxide in a comprehensive way, but if not, EPA is moving toward doing what it has to do and doing it well.

Monica Trauzzi: I want to switch gears and talk about high-speed rail for a moment. You've been doing some work promoting high-speed rail in the Midwest and the Obama administration has set aside some stimulus cash for a high-speed rail project. Talk a bit about the money trail, about how we actually get this thing funded and who the big proponents are in Congress for this.

Howard Learner: This is an exciting time. For many years people have talked about developing high-speed rail in the United States, not just on the East Coast with the Acela line, but in the Midwest, in Florida, California, the Pacific Northwest. This is a place for the U.S. has fallen behind Asia and Europe and people want better transportation. They want better mobility. They want modern, fast, comfortable trains that go from city to city at a reasonably fast speed and provide a good third option to cars and airplanes. And the great thing about high-speed rail is it's seen through the stimulus legislation for job creation. In the Midwest it pulls together the regional economy and creates economic growth and it's good for the environment. The president has said that high-speed rail development is his number one transportation priority and he arranged for $8 billion of federal funding to go to support high-speed rail. Now, that's real money. It's much more federal funding than there's ever been for high-speed rail, other than for the East Coast corridor. On the other hand, the president has recognized this is a down payment. There's more to go. So what we're now seeing in Congress is the House has added an annual appropriation of $4 billion. The Senate has said 1.2 billion. Let's assume they come out somewhere in the middle, that will be more than $10 billion for high-speed rail. That's serious money. On the other hand, we know now what the pent-up demand is, 40 states. Republican governors, Democratic governors have gone to the Federal Railroad Administration and proposed about $100 billion worth of projects. So, there's a serious demand for much more in terms of high-speed rail development. Ten billion is a down payment. It's a very good down payment. Congressman Oberstar now is proposing $50 billion as part of the transportation reauthorization legislation. So we're in the realm now of real money for real serious projects that improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs, and spur economic growth. And that's why people are supporting high-speed rail development. You know, where I come from in Chicago it's the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, as well as AFL-CIO and environmental groups, altogether saying let's move forward.

Monica Trauzzi: A lot to watch there.

Howard Learner: Absolutely.

Monica Trauzzi: We're going to have to end it right there on that note, but I thank you for coming on the show.

Howard Learner: You're welcome and glad to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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