How environmental NGOs are shifting conversation on climate and energy

With President Trump making several significant moves on energy and environment policy in his first 100 days, how are environmental groups shifting strategy? During today's OnPoint, Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, discusses the role nongovernmental organizations will play in the climate and energy conversation over the next four years.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Howard, it's nice to see you again.

Howard Learner: Good to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: So Howard, with President Trump making some big news on energy and environment issues in his first 100 days, in many ways seeking to reverse a lot of what we saw the Obama administration do. How has your work and your focus shifted over the last six months?

Howard Learner: There's an interesting combination of what I'll call both defense and offense. Clearly at the Environmental Law and Policy Center we're seeing some of the moves by the Trump administration as being in the wrong direction. We're pushing back. We're fighting back and we hope that President Trump will reassess and move in a better direction.

On the other hand, clean energy development is moving forward at a rapid pace in the Midwest states. When it comes to places like Iowa, tremendous amount of wind power development. Illinois just passed the strongest renewable energy standard in the region; one of the best in the country. That will lead to 2,500 megawatts of new solar energy. Minnesota's stepping up. Other states in the Midwest are moving forward.

So what we're seeing is while the federal government is stepping back, cities and states in the Midwest are stepping up and moving forward with clean energy jobs of the future, solar energy, wind power and storage that works.

Monica Trauzzi: You said that you're pushing back and fighting back. What specific actions have you taken so far and what do you have planned?

Howard Learner: Well there's certainly things going on in court and that's a problem. Some of those issues have been stayed by the courts. Some of them are going forward.

We're involved, for example, in the BLM methane case and we'll see what happens on that one. We're certainly concerned about what's going on with the Clean Power Plan. If the administration really moves backward on the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard, that's a real problem.

It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. You live in the city. You live in a rural area. When it comes to mercury people understand about kids' health. People understand about maternal health. People don't want more mercury getting into our lakes and rivers.

Every lake and every river almost in the Midwest has a fish advisory. Everybody and particularly women of childbearing ages are being warned don't eat much fish from the lakes because of mercury contamination. So that's a place when it comes to mercury we really hope the administration will reconsider and not move backward on the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, which are already in effect.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, and in many of these cases industry is already taking steps in the direction of the current regulations that are in place. So are the regulations even necessary at this point and even if they are rolled back, might we see industry continuing to move in that direction anyway?

Howard Learner: Well, I think when we talk about industry we're talking about different players in the industry. There are a fair number of companies that own coal plants that have said, "All right. Mercury is a concern." Some of the states have stepped up like Illinois and Michigan with mercury standards. The companies that own power plants in those states are moving forward. They've installed controls and the regulations don't affect them much anymore.

There are a couple of places where there still needs work to be done and simply talking about rolling back the mercury pollution reduction standards, that doesn't sit well with people in America and it doesn't play well with people, and it reflects an insensitivity to the effect of mercury on kids' health and on our environment.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you think the biggest challenge or challenges are facing the environmental community and environmental NGOs over the next four years?

Howard Learner: We've become used to an administration that has been mostly supportive where sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. This is an administration, at least in the first 100 days we're finding ourselves disagreeing with way too much.

Let me give you an example. President Trump won his election in the Great Lake states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio — but his administration's policies and funding decisions in the first 100 days amount to a war on the Great Lakes.

Everybody in the Midwest cares about safe, clean drinking water in the Great Lakes and you're seeing everybody from Senator Portman to Senator Durbin to Governor Snyder and Governor Walker stepping up and saying, "The president should reverse slashing the Great Lakes restoration initiative from $300 million to zero."

You're seeing people on both side of the aisle say keeping the EPA regional office in Chicago, the third largest city in the country on the shores of the largest freshwater body in the world, makes sense. Moving it to Lenexa, Kan., doesn't make sense.

So I think we're at the point with the administration where there's an ideology that's driving the environmental and clean energy policies and it's time for us to see whether they can move back to more practicality and common sense.

When it comes to solar energy development that's about jobs. When it comes to wind power development that's about jobs. We understand the president's concerns with job creation, but when it comes to clean energy that's where the new jobs are being created. Again, politicians on both sides of the aisle understand that, as does the public.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk money for a second. How's funding these days and is the money flowing?

Howard Learner: For the Environmental Law and Policy Center, we're fine. We're not like the ACLU or the Sierra Club. We don't have hundreds of thousands of members and we're not sending out an email every day saying, "Here's a disaster. Please give money."

I think we've developed a track record of success. We're known for results and getting things done and people in the philanthropic community and people who just look at what's going on in the world and say, "I wanna help make a difference," are being generous. We appreciate it.

Monica Trauzzi: Where are you putting that money? Where are you putting the money these days?

Howard Learner: That money's going into really two things. First of all, it's going more into attorneys. We know fully we need to be in the courts more. We need to be in the courts both playing defense and that's some of the things you and I have been talking about, but we also, unfortunately, are going to need to step up and play offense.

If the EPA cuts back its environmental enforcement budget in a serious way, and that's what seems to be happening, while they're stepping backwards, I think we're going to see more citizen suits under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

We can never substitute for the EPA and the Department of Justice doing its job right and doing it well on enforcement, but let's not default to zero. So we're getting ready to move forward in the citizen suit realm if EPA doesn't do its job, which we really hope they will do.

The other place we're increasing our resources is when it comes to the eco-business side. Tremendous opportunities to accelerate solar energy and storage in the Midwest, in Illinois, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. So we're increasing our MBA team, our policy experts, people who really understand how the business dealmaking side works when it comes to clean energy development.

There are great opportunities to move clean energy forward. It's working in the market. With the price of solar panels going from $4 a lot down to about 30 cents a lot, solar is even more practical and more economic in more places of the country.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think that this could be a game-changing moment for environmental NGOs in that we could see the conversation moderate a bit? Is there an opportunity here or is this where you really need to dig your heels in and compromise is not an option at all?

Howard Learner: Well I think you have to look at this. You have to be able to do two things at once. We've always said let's find places where we can agree and let's try to do that when we can and there are going to be places where we disagree and let's disagree without being completely disagreeable.

I think there's a crying need right now for people to occupy that middle space where it's not about ideology. It's about getting things done.

Renewable energy development makes sense because it's good for jobs, it's good for economic growth, it's good for the environment. Energy efficiency creates jobs and it makes sense. It saves both businesses and people in their homes money on their utility bills while it reduces pollution.

One last example for you. Tremendous ideological battle, tremendous legal battle over the Clean Power Plan. As you know, the Clean Power Plan has not been implemented yet, but in Illinois we're 80 percent of the way toward achieving the carbon pollution reduction benefits that are required by 2030 without the Clean Power Plan even being implemented.

Minnesota's about 100 percent. Michigan's about 90 percent. What's happening is we're seeing a combination of savvy policies, technological innovation and market forces working that some of the coal plants are shutting down and more wind power and solar energy and storage is coming into the market. Energy efficiency is working. The system's getting cleaner and that's all happening while the very justifiable battle's going on over the Clean Power Plan. So let's get some things done.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it right there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Howard Learner: Good to see you. Glad to join you.

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

[End of Audio]



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