Former EPA official Perciasepe talks agency cuts, climate compromises and Paris prospects

What avenues exist for engaging with the Trump White House on climate policy? During today's OnPoint, Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the former deputy administrator at U.S. EPA during the Obama administration, discusses the outlook for climate policy as the new administration takes shape. He also weighs in on the future of EPA and how staff should handle the transition.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and former deputy administrator at U.S. EPA during the Obama administration. Bob, it's great to have you back on the show.

Bob Perciasepe: It's nice to be here with you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: So Bob, a lot has changed since the last time you were on the show. At that time, we were speaking about the implementation strategy for the Clean Power Plan, and now the political climate is dramatically different. What avenues do you believe exist for engaging the Trump White House on climate policy?

Bob Perciasepe: Like everyone else, I'm going to have to say that that's still an open question, as we've heard all the noise during the campaign. We've heard some of the noise during the confirmation hearings. But I still have some degree of optimism that we'll be able to engage the administration in some good ideas, because we have a foundation that's pretty strong already, that — in terms of emission reductions that are already underway.

Monica Trauzzi: A foundation — part of that was/is the Clean Power Plan?

Bob Perciasepe: Sure. Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: We're expecting that that's going to be on its way out. Do you believe that this administration will replace the Clean Power Plan with something else?

Bob Perciasepe: I think that they'll have to, by law. So, if they withdraw the Clean Power Plan, there will undoubtedly be legal actions taken to force some other replacement activity reductions. But it's important to look at the power sector now and what's happening to it, and people are continuing to plan as if they're going to have to continue to do reductions.

So, Bloomberg New Energy Finance came out with their projections for 2016 yesterday, and it showed that the power industry reduced its greenhouse emissions just last year 5 percent. They're already at 24 percent below the 2005 levels, so they're 75 percent of the way to the 19 of the 2030 goals of the clean power plants. So, those economic trends — those market trends — are out there, and they're pushing the continuation of reduced emissions.

Monica Trauzzi: Are you encouraged by the recent meeting at the White House on the possibility of a revenue-neutral carbon tax? Is that something that your organization would back?

Bob Perciasepe: We back using the marketplace to really put us over the threshold that we need to get to, for deep reduction in carbons by the middle of the century, and we think using the market and the forces of the market are the best way to go. There's a lot of different approaches — carbon tax is one of them. We certainly can get behind the carbon tax if it's constructed properly. Here we have a set of very influential Republicans saying, "Let's look at this carbon tax." Last year in the Congress, we had Senator Whitehouse have a bill that said, "Let's do a carbon tax." So, we have a foundation for bipartisan conversation, which I think is overdue on this.

Monica Trauzzi: You spent a lot of time at U.S. EPA. What do you think a Scott Pruitt EPA will look like?

Bob Perciasepe: Well, it'll be different than a Gina McCarthy EPA, and I think what we see is, I think, within some range of the tumult that usually happens in transition. But Mr. Pruitt has been a dissident against some of the things that EPA has done, but that's when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma. Now he's going to be the EPA administrator if he's confirmed, and he'll have these laws to implement.

There are over 20 laws that EPA is required to implement. Congress just passed a new one called "The Toxic Substance Control Act Reform" last year, with the same congressional leadership we currently have. That has a suite of things that have to be done on a pretty quick schedule. So, he's going to have to focus on implementing the existing laws that are in front of him.

Monica Trauzzi: I imagine that you are still in touch with some of your former colleagues at EPA. What kinds of conversations are you having?

Bob Perciasepe: My advice has been pretty straightforward. The career leadership at EPA is a very dedicated and smart group, and they will do their best to try to bring the facts forward, bring the legal requirements forward, and help the new EPA management figure out how they proceed in that arena. They will probably, undoubtedly, want to do things differently than were done in the past, but they're still going to have to do them. If they don't implement the law, and as I said, there are over 20 laws, then there'll be litigation to force those actions. And I don't anybody is really looking to do things that way.

Monica Trauzzi: And law aside, we've heard some speculation and certainly Myron Ebell, who was leading the EPA transition, has suggested that there be dramatic cuts in staff numbers at EPA.

Bob Perciasepe: Mm-hmm.

Monica Trauzzi: What impact do you believe that would have on the whole?

Bob Perciasepe: Yeah, I think EPA's size, judged by the number of people working there, has declined over the years. It used to be close to 20,000; now it's closer to 15,000, maybe a little bit under 15,000. The thing that anybody who's running EPA or doing a transition plan for EPA has to realize is all the different things that EPA has to do, not just what they do on climate change, which is very important.

But they are responsible for emergency responses. They're responsible for Superfund sites. They are responsible for the Toxic Substances Control Act now, and regulating all the pesticides in the country. There are quite a few requirements that EPA has, and how that dynamic works with even fewer people will just inevitably lead to delays. And I sound like I'm repeating myself here, but it could also lead to additional litigation, as companies as well as public health interests want to see these laws implemented.

Monica Trauzzi: So, if you were able to walk into the White House today with a plan, a climate plan in place, what would that look like? What's the next-generation plan?

Bob Perciasepe: Well, I do believe that a market-based approach is the way to go. I do believe that while there's much we can do with the existing laws like the Clean Air Act, in the long haul, if we really want to get to deeper decarbonization by the middle of the century, we're going to need another approach or a complementary approach. And so, how to phase into that longer-term approach? While we are phasing out a regulatory approach or a sector-based approach, perhaps, is what I would advocate. What is that long-term plan?

Monica Trauzzi: In the background of all of this, we have the international community that's watching very closely. What options does the international community have for potentially putting pressure on the Trump administration to stay in Paris and also meet the commitments that the Obama administration agreed to?

Bob Perciasepe: Yeah. Well, going back to that same data projection that I mentioned earlier from the Bloomberg New Energy Finance, they are looking at we are about a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses from 2005. It's about halfway to our 2025 goal. And I believe that the market forces are at play with lower-cost renewables; lower-cost natural gas; that we're going to continue to see those trends. We may need policy to make that accelerated, and that's what the Clean Power Plan was and some of the other things. But on Paris, the only data point we have is the president saying he wants to have an open mind, and Rex Tillerson saying he thinks the United States should keep a seat at the table.

Monica Trauzzi: Right.

Bob Perciasepe: I think those are both good things. I think the United States has an interest in making sure that that treaty gets implemented in a way that's compatible with the country; the treaty upholds the sovereignty of the United States. It doesn't interfere with that at all. The United States can decide how it meets those goals. So, having a seat at the table is an important thing. I think you have to be in the agreement to have a seat at the table, and I'm guessing, but I don't have this for sure, that the administration's hearing this from other countries when they have conversations with them.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Very interesting.

Bob Perciasepe: They're probably hearing it from — they're hearing it from businesses, as well.

Monica Trauzzi: For sure. All right. We will end it right there. Thank you. Nice to see you. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bob Perciasepe: Thanks, Monica.

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

[End of Audio]



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