Campaign 2012

Environmental law expert Snape discusses impact of climate, energy issues on elections

With voters heading to the polls, what role will climate and energy issues play as they cast their ballots? During today's OnPoint, Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, discusses the absence of substantive climate discussions throughout the campaign season and how that may affect the political agenda for the next four years. He also previews changes to the regulatory framework under either candidate's administration.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to On Point. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. Bill, nice to see you again.

Bill Snape: Pleasure to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Bill, with Hurricane Sandy in the background and the resurgence of climate change in the political discussion, what impact, if any at all, do you believe climate change will have on voters as they head to the polls?

Bill Snape: I think the visual imagery of the devastation of the hurricane has been very powerful. For the first time in the entire election cycle, we're hearing the candidates talk about climate change. The president actually addressed it in great detail a few days ago. So I think it really has turned the whole scene on its head, and it could end up being an election issue, an actual vote getter.

Monica Trauzzi: Like you said, there was no mention of climate throughout the campaign, but also in the debates. E&E TV of course cohosted an energy, an environment debate with MIT, but that was with campaign surrogates. In terms of the four major debates, no mention of climate. It seems that that was deliberate on the part of either campaign, but what does that mean for the next four years? Do you think that's an indication that this is off the table, or do you expect that either candidate would head more towards the center once they're in office?

Bill Snape: Well, each candidate I think has its reasons for wanting to focus on certain things as opposed to another. Romney has clearly staked out the position of being up on EPA and beating up on environmental regulations whenever he can. He's adopted the Republican Party line full throttle. The president is a more interesting situation, because what I think he's done is try to focus on air toxics and the health impacts of dirty air, but again, Sandy changed all of that. Now the president has to talk about these things. So it will be interesting to see, whatever candidate wins, how they actually take that next big step.

Monica Trauzzi: Is it completely fair to draw the correlation between Hurricane Sandy and the political discussion on climate change?

Bill Snape: I think it absolutely is. From a scientific point of view, let's start with that, you can't say Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change as the only cause, but clearly climate change had a huge impact on making Sandy the huge storm that it is. You have the Arctic creating these chaotic jet streams. You have much warmer air and water, and you have literally higher levels of sea that are creating these surges. Hurricane Sandy would not have been as bad without climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: So let's talk a bit about some of the work that the Obama administration has done on energy and climate, specifically on the Clean Air Act. Why do you think President Obama has sort of failed in his use of the Clean Air Act?

Bill Snape: I don't know what the political calculation has been, but they clearly didn't want and have not been aggressive on attacking greenhouse pollutants. Everything they've done has been to propose something, to talk about something, to think about something. All of their action on clean air has been with regard to toxics, with regard to health impacts, and that's good. We appreciate that. Even the automobile standards, which we welcome as an improvement over the status quo, were really quite timid once you looked underneath the hood of that final rule.

Monica Trauzzi: But many would say that they were rather aggressive with their use of the Clean Air Act and all the regulations that we saw coming out of EPA.

Bill Snape: Certainly the House majority would say that. One of the more interesting political sideshows that has occurred over the last two years has been the quite vitriolic rhetoric coming out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Subcommittee Chairman Whitfield has called Administrator Jackson a liar. I mean, there's been some very heated political pressure, and I think EPA has felt it. I think EPA has been beat up quite a bit. I think the White House basically told EPA, "Back off. This is too much heat. We don't want to take it right now."

Monica Trauzzi: So if Romney were to win, then we would probably see immediate talk about rolling back some of this regulatory framework. How quickly or easily can that actually happen, when it comes to the Clean Air Act and some of the rules that we've seen implemented under the Obama administration?

Bill Snape: I think it'd be pretty hard to roll back the Clean Air Act the way that at least Chairman Whitfield would like to have it happen. There are a number of Republicans in the Senate, some of whom are not even up for reelection, who've made it very clear they think the Clean Air Act is important, Senator Alexander from Tennessee, the Senators from Maine. So I don't think you would see the act eviscerated, but I do think you'd see the attacks heighten in their intensity, for sure.

Monica Trauzzi: But we always go back to the idea that passing legislation is a better way to go about this than to use regulation. We've been hearing talk about a carbon tax. Do you think that has any legs, starting in January, when we may have another divided Congress?

Bill Snape: Well, certainly given the budget situation and sequestration crisis that is looming, I think the carbon tax ought to be on the table, but I'm not sure I agree with the idea that the Clean Air Act ought not be implemented for greenhouse gases. This is a statute we've had for 40 years. It's a statute that has applied successfully to other air pollutants. I see no reason to apply it, not to apply it to greenhouse gases. And in fact, I think we could apply it quite economically and efficiently.

Monica Trauzzi: So if President Obama wins a second term, who do you think should head up DOE?

Bill Snape: I've heard the rumors that Secretary Chu is leaving. You know, he's one of the quiet success stories of this administration, I think. Yes, I know that loan program has its warts ...

Monica Trauzzi: A lot of people would say he's not a success.

Bill Snape: ... but if you look at the research they've done on solar and wind storage and transmission technologies, we are incredibly close now to making those modes of energy production and energy sources viable. So I think when history looks back at Secretary Chu, I think it will look more kindly than the present day politics.

Monica Trauzzi: So this leads us perfectly into a discussion about incentives. How damaging are things like the A123 bankruptcy and Solyndra to the future of incentives for renewables?

Bill Snape: Well, I think you can say without any hesitation that this administration, Ken Salazar at Interior, they're no Harold Ickes. This was not the New Deal. There were a lot of mistakes made with that money. I don't think anyone can deny that. But let's start with really the bottom line, which is we continue to give billions of dollars of subsidies to the very fossil fuel industries that are causing all this damage. If you want to start balancing the budget, get rid of those billions of dollars of subsidies. That's a pretty easy way to start. And in terms of these solar subsidies versus the fossil fuel subsidies, it's, the difference is dramatic.

Monica Trauzzi: But both candidates talk about an all of the above strategy and energy independence, so that means looking at all technologies, all forms of energy.

Bill Snape: Well, I think that's why we've criticized the president. I think the president has gone too much whole hog into the fossil fuel arena. I think his natural gas fracking proposals have a lot of problems. It does not take into account a lot of the public health dangers with fracking. This is not our grandfather's fracking, by the way. We're talking about fracking that is miles deep, horizontal, going through miles, it's not the fracking we had even a decade ago.

Monica Trauzzi: But we also have very high energy demands in this country that need to be met somehow.

Bill Snape: We do, and I think it's time to start talking about consumption. I think it is start, it's time to have wide, there's no entitlement for that type of energy use. And again, I think with other alternatives, wind, solar, some fossil, we're not talking about immediately ending the use of fossil fuels. We're talking about an incremental approach. But an incremental approach is not treading water and just yelling loudly. We do actually have to make some tangible progress.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, Bill. We'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Bill Snape: Thank you.

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

[End of Audio]



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