Former EPA official McCabe talks Trump moves on budget, power plan, ozone and Paris

As the Trump administration takes steps to undo Obama-era climate and energy policies, how are ex-Obama officials working to influence the policy discussion from outside Washington? During today's OnPoint, Janet McCabe, a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the former acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at U.S. EPA during the Obama administration, reacts to the Trump administration's steps to overturn the Clean Power Plan and exit the Paris climate agreement. She also discusses the impacts of the Trump EPA budget proposal.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. With me today is Janet McCabe, senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Janet is a former acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at U.S. EPA during the Obama administration. Thank you for joining me. Nice to see you.

Janet McCabe: Nice to see you, too, Monica. Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: So quite an about-face on energy and climate since you left the government. What is your assessment of the concrete steps we've seen so far from the Trump administration on climate?

Janet McCabe: Well, on climate specifically we're just seeing a lot of relooking at a variety of things that the Obama administration did. The reconsiderations, delays, revisiting, that sort of thing. Maybe the two biggest things that people have been noticing are the decision to relook at the Clean Power Plan and to ask the D.C. Circuit to not go ahead and issue a decision and the recent withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Monica Trauzzi: So on the Clean Power Plan specifically, if the Obama EPA had crafted a different rule or had maybe gone about the CPP differently, do you think we would still be in this position of the Trump administration trying to completely do away with the Clean Power Plan?

Janet McCabe: Well, I think it's a reflective of the deep divisions about how we approach climate and people's views about whether EPA has a responsibility to regulate in this area. Our view was we clearly did. That the Supreme Court had found that CO2 was a pollutant that was endangering public health and welfare and that's what the Clean Air Act is supposed to do is protect people from that.

So we went about devising a rule using the standard approaches set forth in the Clean Air Act and many years of precedent applied to the particular industry, electric power industry and fully briefed it and argued it at a D.C. Circuit. I don't know if we'll ever know what that court's view is on the job that we did, but I think we would have had these divisions likely anyway.

Monica Trauzzi: An imperfect rule. Is it fair to say that it was not a perfect rule?

Janet McCabe: Well there are always things that people have different views on how you could do something on a rule, but I'm actually very, very proud of the job that EPA did on the rule given the importance of it, the significance of it.

One thing I'm particularly proud of is how we engaged everybody. Now I had hundreds of meetings and so did many people in the Office of Air and Radiation and the administrator as well, getting people's views and building those considerations in.

If you look at the changes that were made between the proposed rule and the final rule, how we really listened to make this a rule that could be workable.

Monica Trauzzi: So despite the Trump administration's efforts to pull this back, we continue to see industry and states moving forward with a lot of the same plans that they were planning on pre-CPP and also once the CPP was rolling. So then what is the net effect of the Trump administration rolling back the Clean Power Plan? Does it have an impact when it comes to emissions reductions?

Janet McCabe: Well, let me just comment on the first part of that because this is what a lot of people predicted and it actually makes sense given the way the Clean Air Act works because the Clean Air Act tells EPA, "Don't make stuff up. Look at where industry is going and especially where the leading industries are going that are reducing ..."

This is about air pollution, right. This is not about the energy system. This is about reducing air pollution; producing power produces air pollution, and certain kinds of power production produce more than others. There are ways to reduce that.

So we looked at where the industry was going and we built the rule based on that. So it makes all the sense in the world that that is turning out to be true. There are certainly many examples of that.

The rule is important though because it sends a signal to all of industry all across the country that this is the right direction for the industry to go to produce the good that it produces. In this case electricity, electrons, but to do so in a way that reduces the harm to public health and to the environment.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned Paris. A week and a half ago the Trump administration moved to exit the Paris Agreement. Obviously that's going to take some time before that's in full effect. What are the broader impacts of that? How does that impact what state and local governments here in the U.S. are going to be doing on emissions reductions? Does it play?

Janet McCabe: Well, I was both perturbed and not perturbed by the decision on Paris. I don't think it was a surprise to many people that the president pulled out of the accord. In fact, given the signals that had been sent through these various actions, I think the surprise would have been the other way.

The good news is that states, cities and businesses are moving forward. There were 1,400 organizations in cities and universities that signed up for the We're Still In campaign on day one, and they can't keep up with all of that.

In the part of the country where I come from, the Midwest, we have cities like East Lansing and Cincinnati and Indianapolis that are stepping up and saying, "Yes. We believe this is a responsibility of the United States and we're going to move forward on it." Big, big companies from the Midwest as well as all over the place.

On the other hand, I think there are some really significant downsides to the U.S. not being a part of the Paris accord, assuming that that goes forward.

For one thing, we're handing over leadership of this incredibly important international issue to other countries and, in particular, China. Is that where the U.S. really wants to be? Is that where our businesses really want to be?

One of the important roles that EPA in particular was to play in the Paris accord, it's a very sort of nerdy, wonky thing, but important, which is to provide technical assistance to countries to make sure that they are doing their reductions in a credible way, keeping track of them and accounting for them. Not all countries do that now the way we do and the way some of the countries in Europe do. They need to have resources and assistance to do that.

So we want everybody's reductions to be credible and natural and real and accurate. Not having the U.S. as part of that is a real downside.

Monica Trauzzi: The president indicated that he's willing to renegotiate or potentially sign onto a new plan. Do you see that as genuine on his part and do you see it as plausible on the international stage?

Janet McCabe: Well, I can't speak for his intentions. This was signed off on by a lot of countries and it took a lot to get to that point. I think it will be difficult for one country to come back in and say, "No, we want a different deal."

Monica Trauzzi: So lots of rollbacks. Do you think we could see some policies coming out of this administration specifically on climate? CPP is rolled back. Could something replace it?

Janet McCabe: Well, we've heard that they're going forward with something although what we've heard is that it is a rollback of the plan. I'm sure there will be lots and lots of input from a whole variety of commenters on what that policy might look like.

Really when it comes right down to it, EPA's job is to implement the Clean Air Act and will people feel that whatever this administration comes out with be fully fulfilling what Congress intended.

Monica Trauzzi: And U.S. EPA is also going to be giving states an extra year to meet the ozone regulations that came out of the Obama administration. It's something that the business community has applauded. Does that extra year give stakeholders the time that they need to meet the targets and also continue to work towards meeting those regulations?

Janet McCabe: Well, I tell you, I'm concerned about that decision. The Clean Air Act sets a schedule. Once the standard is revised, that reflects what the science shows is necessary to protect public health. Then it starts a whole chain of steps that stretch out over many years depending on how severely polluted an area is, in order to move that air quality there in the right direction.

The administrator can extend that time for a year if he or she doesn't have adequate data to make those decisions. It's not clear to me exactly what data the administrator based that on.

I think that the Clean Air Act provides plenty of time for the planning that people need to do in order to meet the standard. I'm worried because we've seen the administrator say he's relooking at the 2015 ozone standard.

The situation is that we have people out there in the world breathing this air and for many of them it is causing them health problems, missed school, missed work. We've had ozone action days and ozone violations across the country here for this hot weather here in June, and people are suffering.

So to delay implementation of that standard has real cost in terms of public health.

Monica Trauzzi: But again, business community is something that they had been pushing for. So two sides of the coin.

I want to talk about the budget. Obviously we've seen some proposed significant budget cuts to EPA coming out of the Trump budget.

The agency has long been the focus for conservatives for being too large, too many employees, too big of a workforce, costing too much money. Do you think we're at a moment right now where we should be taking a good look at how many people the agency employs, how much money is being spent? Perhaps the budget cuts are more dramatic than some would like to see, but should that be taken a look at?

Janet McCabe: Well, I think any responsible government is going to be looking on an ongoing basis at being the most efficient as they can be, but people need to realize that EPA is smaller than when Obama came into office. They're several thousand employees smaller than in the early days of the Obama administration.

I think the entire budget of EPA is about .3 percent of the federal budget. It is not a large agency. It is not overflowing. It has very clear tasks to do under the federal laws that Congress has set for it. More work than it can do with the resources that it has.

And keeping in mind it does this in partnership with the state agencies and the local agencies who implement a lot of the programs. Of course, significant reductions are proposed for those agencies as well.

So this budget will result in less work being done on the ground, whether it's by EPA or by state and federal agencies to protect public health, keep water clean, keep air clean, do appropriate enforcement when people aren't abiding by the laws. There's just no question about it. It will.

Monica Trauzzi: We were talking before the show. One of the things that you're really concerned about is the R&D for technology development and what might happen to that money.

Janet McCabe: Well, this budget takes very significant cuts on the science budget. Not just at EPA, but at other agencies as well. I think it's about 50 percent cut at EPA. That's where a lot of the work gets done so that people can understand the environmental problems.

This budget zeroes money out for the Great Lakes restoration initiative. I couldn't come on your show representing Environmental Law and Policy Center in the Midwest without speaking to that, and it specifically provides drinking water for 48 million people. It's the third largest economy in the world. Seven billion dollars in fishing industry.

And I learned, interestingly enough, of the 10 most highly rated beers, five of them are made from water from the Great Lakes. So the small amount of money that goes to those incredibly important projects in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake and all communities across the country, is really going to make a different on the ground.

Monica Trauzzi: And big cuts to efficiency programs as well, which we chatted a bit earlier about. Do you think those cuts will have legs in Congress?

Janet McCabe: Well, I don't know. I think what we saw in the FY17 budget suggests that Congress is going to take its own look at the things that it thinks are important.

The efficiency programs, the voluntary programs that have really been through Republican and Democratic administrations, ways for businesses to shine to have encouragement and recognition when they innovate and evolve, which is what we do in this country. We get better. We get cleaner. We get cheaper. We get to serve people better and everybody wants to do that. That's what makes people feel good and it's what makes them money.

For programs like Energy Star and Natural Gas Star and these positive, encouraging, voluntary programs to thought to be not useful, it would be a shame.

Monica Trauzzi: We will end it right there. Janet, thank you. Thank you for your time.

Janet McCabe: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Nice to see you.

Janet McCabe: Thank you.

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

[End of Audio]



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines