Clean Air Task Force's Schneider suggests road map for president on emissions, air regulations

In a recent open letter to President Obama, the Clean Air Task Force highlighted a series of climate policy recommendations that could help the United States achieve its 2020 emissions reduction goals without the need for congressional intervention. During today's OnPoint, Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, discusses the letter and explains what he believes should be done in the transportation sector, on innovation and in the exploration of natural gas to further the United States' climate goals.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force. Conrad, thanks for coming back on the show.

Conrad Schneider: Thank you very much for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Conrad, the Clean Air Task Force has just released an open letter to President Obama highlighting how you believe the administration should proceed on climate during its second term. You're releasing this ahead of the President's inauguration speech, ahead of the State of the Union speech. Is your sense that he will discuss climate in these two speeches, and that this is actually something that could be taken up during his second term?

Conrad Schneider: Well, we're very hopeful that he will mention it, but the test on this issue is not whether he mentions it in a speech, but whether there's follow-through with some of the recommendations that we're making here. And we think it should be a priority for his second term. And we were heartened when at the first press conference that he held post-election, he was asked a question about Hurricane Sandy and climate, and he laid out what we thought was a very sensible approach, two-tracked approach, to thinking about this. And he said, "First of all, I want to find out what we can do immediately to start mitigating the worst consequences of this, but then I want to spark a national conversation about over the long term what we really need to do to ultimately solve this problem." And he put two important caveats on there that I think all have to take into account: one, that it has to be consistent with economic growth and job creation. So that really in a way sort of bounds the discussion about what we need to have. But it's - he's thinking about it the right way, an immediate time horizon, and he's already on the record saying he wants to cut 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, but ultimately, the goal here, and that's the administration's stated position to the international community, is 80 percent by 2050, so ...

Monica Trauzzi: And aren't we on track to meet that 17 percent goal by 2020, with the fuel economy standards and efficiency measures?

Conrad Schneider: We're within reaching distance, but in our letter, we point to two things that we think are absolutely going to be crucial to be able to meet that goal. We're not going to do it on our own, and in part one of the reasons we're closer than we were is because of the recession. One of the reasons is because of cheap gas as a result of the shale boom. Those are things that we can't count on going forward, so we need to lock in those gains and make more. And so the two things that we've proposed to meet his concerns about immediate action that can be taken is number one, addressing carbon pollution from existing coal plants. That's number one. And number two is to address methane from the oil and gas industry directly. Those two rules together would put us a long way on the road to meeting that target.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Let's talk about that first point, the new source performance standards. Lisa Jackson is slated to leave EPA. She's been a champion of these Clean Air Act regulations. How do you think her leaving changes the game and the likelihood of someone coming in and really pushing forward on these air regs?

Conrad Schneider: Well, firstly, rightly you say that, you know, part of her legacy is being able to set the stage for these regulations, because she was there when the endangerment finding was made, and so forth. But ultimately, there's a legal obligation here, a duty under the Clean Air Act, for EPA to move forward, regardless of who the administrator is, and there's an opportunity here, and this - and what we're saying, and the reason that our letter is targeted to President Obama, is because we need Presidential leadership on this issue. EPA will follow his direction in implementing the Clean Air Act. So we're hopeful that we'll see a strong replacement for Lisa Jackson, and we honor her service now that she's decided to leave, but regardless of who's in that position, we need to move forward to clean up the biggest source of carbon dioxide: existing coal plants.

Monica Trauzzi: The President has also indicated that becoming an exporter of energy is an important goal for him, and that would certainly require greater exploration of our natural gas resources. And one of the things that you point out is that you don't believe that natural gas is a long run climate solution. So how does the President square those two goals of addressing the climate, but then also exporting energy and exploring natural gas?

Conrad Schneider: Well, you know, these can be - first of all, these are mutually consistent, not mutually inconsistent goals. Natural gas can provide cleaner energy immediately in regards to just dealing with the existing power fleet. A heavier reliance on natural gas now could lower carbon dioxide emissions from that fleet even more than is already happening as a result of low gas prices, so that's number one. But even natural gas is going to have to meet certain environmental performance standards in order to fit within the goal of a 17 percent reduction or an 80 percent reduction by 2050. Natural gas is responsible for sort of two different types of climate changers - climate forcing agents. One is the methane, right? So it is in fact methane, and it leaks from everything in that system, from the well pad all the way down to the burner tip. And so we're calling for EPA to pursue regulations that would start to close those leaks, stop the venting of that methane, which is much more potent as a climate forcing gas than is CO2. But the other thing is when it's combusted, when it's burned, that creates CO2 as well, and ultimately, fossil units in this country, certainly by 2050, fossil units in this country are going to have to capture and store their carbon, or we're not going to have a chance of meeting that target.

Monica Trauzzi: How close are we to the technology on that?

Conrad Schneider: Well, the technology is there. In fact, that's one of the things that underpins EPA's proposal on new source standards, right, the new fossil power plants, is that carbon capture and storage technology is available today. And they recognize and have a phase in of that, that it can be phased in over time. What we need to do is deploy more of it and bring the cost down so that it is more widely deployed.

Monica Trauzzi: You also call on the administration to reorganize DOE's innovation programs. What's happening there right now that you don't think is quite right, and is that a suggestion that maybe things have been mismanaged under Steve Chu?

Conrad Schneider: No, I think what they need to do is build on the success that they've had and recognize where they can make improvements. You know, right now, the Department of Energy rightly has a mission to help us produce energy in this country that's affordable, to keep the lights on, to keep the transportation system moving. It has a goal of domestic energy security, and those are all correct. But if the administration has set this target, this ultimate target of 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2050, then the Department of Energy has to align its activities to meet that goal, and right now, the Department is not necessarily arrayed to do that. And so we're calling for the administration to take this opportunity at the beginning of a new term to take a look at what can be done, particularly on innovation policy, to improve in that area.

Monica Trauzzi: What's the attention span right now for climate discussions in Washington?

Conrad Schneider: Well, I think as a result of Hurricane Sandy and the re-election, it's come back to the fore in a way that it probably hasn't been in the last two years. And we really welcome that. And so as you started the show by saying, we're looking for president leadership and a statement about this, but what is really going to be the test is whether the administration has the fortitude to stick it through, to follow through on these rules, and take the necessary actions to do the reforms in the agencies to get us there.

Monica Trauzzi: So you don't call on the president to push any legislative solutions. There's been talk about a carbon tax and how that might play into fiscal discussions. Any likelihood to that, and would that be a good path forward?

Conrad Schneider: Well, all those types of things, cap and trade, carbon taxes, would be helpful, particularly if some of the proceeds were used to help fund and deploy some of the zero carbon energy we're going to need to meet the challenges of the next few decades. But our - I think our point is even if that doesn't happen, these innovation - changes in innovation policy need to happen anyway, to be able to create a better suite of options, of lower cost carbon energy that we can use going forward. Carbon tax, cap and trade, or, irrespective of those things, innovation policy is going to have to change for us to get there.

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

Conrad Schneider: Thank you.

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

[End of Audio]



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