Climate Change

Former DOE official David Conover calls for market signal on CO2

From hydrogen fuel cells to carbon sequestration, Bush administration officials have long touted new technology as the best way to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. During today's OnPoint, a former Energy Department official turns a critical eye towards the White House's approach thus far. David Conover, former director of the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP) and current counsel to the National Commission on Energy Policy, discusses why he believes a market signal is needed to spur action on climate change, and whether President Bush would ever endorse that strategy. Conover also explains why he feels the administration has the right idea when it comes to international partnerships on global warming.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in Washington is David Conover, the former head of the U.S. Climate Change Technology office. David thanks for coming on the program.

David Conover: Thanks for having me Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: Now you were in the Bush administration for about three years. Tell me, what was your biggest accomplishment when you were working on climate change technology issues?

David Conover: Well Darren we were able to put together a multi-agency strategic plan for climate change technology that we released in draft last year. The final version should be out this spring, but it is some 250 pages long, a century long view of the kinds of technologies that we're going to need to address the climate change challenge.

Darren Samuelsohn: And the most important technologies are?

David Conover: The biggest ones, in terms of the United States, are going to be clean coal, some people would refer to it as the integrated gasification combined cycle with carbon sequestration, and advanced nuclear on the power side. Of course solar and wind are important, but they're never really going to the base-load power sources, as are coal and nuclear. On the transportation side of course the president set out a goal of a hydrogen economy with a commercialization decision by 2015. We're also looking at hybrid vehicles, clean diesel hybrid, E85 ethanol, a whole range of areas in the transportation sector.

Darren Samuelsohn: And you are now working for the National Commission on Energy Policy, which has proposed or endorsed a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Explain for me your position there now. And how do you square endorsing a mandatory cap on carbon versus your time in the Bush administration?

David Conover: Sure, thanks for that. I am a Republican counsel to the NCPE, which is a bipartisan group ranging from Bill Reilly, a former administrator to EPA, to Ralph Cavan at the NRDC, John Rowe CEO of Excelon, John Holdren, a professor at Harvard. That group came up with a series of recommendations, one of which dealt with climate change. Essentially it calls for establishing a price for carbon, which you'll hear a lot of companies now saying we need a price for carbon. Most people recognize we're going to be in a carbon constrained world in the very near future. In order to plan effectively and make the appropriate investments you need to have that pricing structure. So NCPE has a proposal, they aren't wedded to the details. They do believe that you need to have a market-based economy wide system that does constrain the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. That calls for a gradual reduction in the intensity of our emissions, much as the Bush administration did. And then at some point a turning down and a reduction in emissions contingent on participation within the international community, both developed countries and developing countries. And that was really the Bush administration's concern with the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries had no obligations. The reductions were far too deep, far too fast to accommodate the growth of new technologies that are going to be needed. So if I were still in the administration today and were an NCPE type proposal to come forward for a vote in the Congress and the administration was called upon to make a decision I would be advocating that the administration support that. I expect when it happens, if it happens, there will be people in the administration advocating that the administration support that proposal, which is different from the kinds of caps and trade that the administration has opposed in the past.

Darren Samuelsohn: Why would you advocate such a thing?

David Conover: Because the proposal that NCPE has put forward is a realistic, cost-effective, the impact on the economy according to the Energy Information Administration is less than two hundredths of 1 percent of RGDP in 20 years. So you can't argue that it would wreck the economy. You can't argue because there is a proposal there that explicitly links it to foreign country participation that the U.S. would be going it alone and risking our global competitiveness. And you can't argue that the cuts are too fast and too far, because the glide path is very similar to the intensity reduction goal of the Bush administration established on a voluntary basis.

Darren Samuelsohn: Now this was up for a debate last summer in some context when the national commission on energy policy encouraged Senator Bingaman and Senator Domenici to move this. Did you have an opportunity at that point to bring this up?

David Conover: No. As a matter of fact the way the administration works is if there's an actual vote on the Senate floor on either an amendment or a bill then they would issue a statement of administration policy. But this debate never got to that point. It is interesting to note that just last week was the one-year anniversary of the sense of the Senate resolution in which a majority of the senators did vote that it was time for a mandatory economy wide market-based constraint on greenhouse gas emissions that didn't harm the economy and did linkup to international systems. So there was a vote, a nonbinding vote albeit, but a vote on a sense of the Senate resolution that put on record a majority of the Senate in favor of something like the NCPE proposal.

Darren Samuelsohn: If you advocated this and you were still in the administration who would be your biggest obstacle? Would it be Vice President Cheney? President Bush himself?

David Conover: I really don't know, because when I was there we did not have a discussion of this issue sitting around a table. I would say that you need to put in context, of course the president did campaign on constraints on CO2 emissions. When he took office of course we were in the tail-end of the California energy crisis. 9/11 occurred shortly thereafter, so it really became a matter of priorities. The first priority was dealing with the energy crisis that we had before us with a mixture of supply, efficiency, renewable energy, conservation matters. Then we had 9/11 and then of course we had Katrina. And so it's more a matter I think of priorities and focus. The good news is that the climate change challenge is a century long challenge. We need to take action, as 11 national academies of science indicated last year. But whether we needed to take action in 2001 and 2002 versus some of the issues that were going on I think is an open question.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have there been Oval Office discussions about a mandatory cap on carbon?

David Conover: I wish I had been high up enough in the administration to be sitting in an Oval Office discussion. So I've been in discussions in the White House about how do we deal with the high price of oil? How do we deal with more supply? How to deal with conservation and demand reduction? Climate change issues are tangentially related to all of those, because energy security often involves the very same technologies that climate change is going to involve. But in terms of an explicit discussion on climate change policy, there was really never an opportunity to visit that because Congress didn't put us in a position of having to say do we support or do we oppose a specific bill?

Darren Samuelsohn: President Bush has said recently that he regrets the position that he took in terms of explaining where he went on Kyoto. Do you feel that President Bush maybe did not good enough job in terms of trying to get his message across, his climate change policies across?

David Conover: Well, you know I wasn't in the administration when that discussion of Kyoto occurred. It would've been possible to never mention the word Kyoto at all. To do exactly what the previous administration did and that is, don't send it up to the Senate for ratification of the agreement. That would've been one way to go. The decision, at the time, and again I wasn't part of that then, was to be explicit about and try to really put an end to the debate about Kyoto. And I think most academics and most people that are knowledgeable observers in this town would say Kyoto really isn't the issue anymore. The issue is what do we do? How do we get developing countries, developed countries working together to deal with this issue? So I might have phrased it a little differently. I'm sure the president was very direct and forthright in his expressions of it, whether all of that was filtered through the media in the best possible way, whether some of the other issues that came up at the time contributed to a sense of sort of piling on. There were other environmental issues, as you recall, the arsenic rulemaking that occurred at the very same timeframe. So I would say that there was sort of a confluence of events that made that announcement more significant than probably it really was in a substantive term.

Darren Samuelsohn: How likely, in the next 2 1/2 years while President Bush still holds the White House, will it be that he'll get an opportunity maybe to veto or sign into law a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide?

David Conover: Well that's a great question. As I said earlier, 53 senators last year endorsed something like that, a mandatory market-based approach that doesn't harm the U.S. economy. There have been house bills introduced. There have been discussions in the House. We've got another election coming up this November and I'd say much of it depends on what the mix looks like in both the House and the Senate. If I had to bet before the end of the administration whether either body was going to act on a bill I would say yes they will.

Darren Samuelsohn: And do you think if the Democrats take one or both of the chambers that that makes it more likely that we would see the pressure on on the White House?

David Conover: It's interesting, when you look at the Democratic committee lineups I'm not sure how much of a difference that really makes. The real issue, to me, over the next couple of years is do we continue to see, from the science side, and I'm no scientist, but the science I look at and the reports that I read, do we continue to see a decrease in the uncertainty? To the extent the uncertainty about this issue continues to decrease than the costs and benefits of taking action begin to become more clear. And that is the driver, from my perspective, on both congressional action and action in the executive branch.

Darren Samuelsohn: The Treasury Secretary nominee, Henry Paulson, what kind of an affect can he bring to the global warming debate within the Oval Office? He has advocated at the Nature Conservancy a mandatory cap on carbon.

David Conover: Sure. And there are a number of people within the administration that would be listening to someone in his position that would take his views seriously. I think that I don't know the man so I can't say for certain, but the way the administration policy process works, at least those that I was involved in, everyone is heard. Everyone discusses these things and then the President of the United States makes the decision. So clearly this Treasury Secretary will have a voice.

Darren Samuelsohn: And handicap for me the bills that are out there. I mean you see bills from the left, you see bills from the right, kind of the moderate, I guess, point of view. Do you think that what we're seeing right now is sort of just everyone's laying down their cards on the table ultimately for negotiations on a bill?

David Conover: Sure. I've been involved in a lot of legislation and the way these things work, especially an issue of this magnitude, it is very difficult to get this right. So you'll have statements that are put out, bills that are introduced in terms of a negotiating tactic, in terms of creating the boundaries on the right or the left. And then people begin to move towards a sensible center. We think that the NCPE proposal represents one sensible center approach. I'm sure there are others, but the bottom line is we need to begin having a serious debate about this. And we need to quit talking about it quasi-religious terms. It's not a matter of whether you believe in climate change. The issue is whether taking action is worth the costs and accrues significant benefits. I think the answer is yes, others disagree.

Darren Samuelsohn: Now the budget that you oversaw in the technology office is about $3 billion a year. If you had your druthers what would it be?

David Conover: Well, if we could just print money, we would have wanted to obviously increase the R&D budget. The fact is that, again, just as we talked about in the policy side, it's a matter of priorities. I think it's more important really to talk about the different shares of R&D investments and deployment investments that we had. When you look at the relative priorities of the different components you find very, I think for some people surprisingly, a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency, which is a good thing. And nearly co-equal emphasis on clean coal, nuclear fission, fusion, hydrogen technology and renewable technology. I think that probably has it about right. I would say that if I could have spent or overseen the spending of more money on carbon sequestration that would probably be a good thing. There are some who say we ought to spend more on clean diesel hybrid technology and decreasing the cost of something like cellulosic ethanol technology. That's a valid discussion. Whether we're spending the right amount on fusion is also a valid discussion. But really the issue is less, to me, the overall level than it is the priorities within that amount.

Darren Samuelsohn: I wanted to ask you lastly about the Asia Pacific partnership, President Bush's, you know, premier international program. It hasn't fared very well in the House and he's only asked for about $52 million. Is that a sign that Congress is just not interested?

David Conover: No. I think what that is, and I'm glad you raised that, because when we talked about Kyoto being really not the point anymore, I was at an academic conference a couple of months ago and somebody said, well, what we really need to do is get a few of the developed countries working with a few of the developing countries and really trying to lead the rest of the world as they tackle this issue. And when you talk about the Asia Pacific partnership you're talking about the U.S., Australia, Japan, Korea working with India and China. So that core group of nations represents about half of the emissions globally now. The funding level is a different story. This is not supposed to be a mechanism for transferring huge sums of money to other countries. So requesting $52 million to start this program, to facilitate transfer, to get these countries talking to each other to work on national goals I think is the right amount of money. I think what Congress needs is a good explanation of what that money would be spent on. And once they get that then I think they'll be supportive.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK David, we're out of time, but thank you so much for coming on the program.

David Conover: My pleasure, thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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