EPA Head: Trump Can’t Undo Clean-Energy Momentum

Amid threats to undo key climate rules, Gina McCarthy says train “has already left the station.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the National Press Club luncheon on Monday.
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Nov. 21, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Even with President-elect Donald Trump vowing to reverse key climate-change regulations and strip the agency, the outgoing head of the Environmental Protection Agency says climate action won’t stop.

“The global transition to a low-carbon economy is much more than one regulation,” said Gina McCarthy, speaking at a National Press Club event Monday. “The energy market and the commitment of the private sector are now driving our inevitable journey.”

Trump and key advisers have cast doubt on the scientific consensus around climate change and have painted the administration’s regulations to fight it as strict infringements on the coal industry. Trump has promised to undo the Clean Power Plan, the landmark regulations on carbon emissions from the power sector.

The regulations were the backbone of the Obama administration’s climate-action plan and were key to the commitment to cut 26 to 28 percent of the country’s greenhouse emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. On Monday, McCarthy sought to portray the rules as a reflection of a broader transition already happening. The Clean Power Plan, she said, was meant to “follow the clean-energy transition already underway,” not be the “driving force.”

“The train to a global clean-energy future has already left the station,” she said. “We have a choice. We can choose to get on board, to lead, or we can choose to be left behind, to stand stubbornly still.”

Although the rule has been under a stay by the Supreme Court since February (the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the plan in September), states have already made progress toward the reduction goals set under the plan. Twenty-four states had lower emissions in 2015 than would be required by 2022 under the rule (which set emission-reduction goals for individual states, but left leeway on how they could be met). An analysis released in June by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 31 states had already taken steps that would put them more than halfway toward meeting benchmarks set for 2020.

More broadly, clean energy has boomed, in part thanks to the year-end tax deal that extended tax incentives for wind and solar installations. According to the Energy Information Administration, 70 percent of new utility-scale generating capacity expected this year will have zero emissions.

That has environmentalists hopeful that the country won’t take a tremendous step backward, even though the Trump administration and congressional leaders are promising to help expand fossil fuels at the expense of climate action. Utilities have increasingly moved away from dirty coal in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy, and many private companies are also working to clean their own supply chains.

Experts agree that the coal industry is unlikely to rebound even with fewer regulations, thanks to cheap natural gas and renewables, although backers have been looking at other steps to give the industry a hand.

Trump—who has said climate change is a hoax—has promised to lift restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry and overturn a slew of regulations cracking down on coal-fired power plants, including the Clean Power Plan, limits on mercury emissions, and restrictions on mining techniques. He has also said he would withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations climate accord crafted in Paris last year, although that process could take years.

Here again the Obama administration has taken an optimistic tone, saying that the climate deal followed years of international momentum that won’t be stopped even if the U.S. exits. “No nation will do well if it sits on the sidelines, handicapping its new businesses from reaping the benefits of the clean-tech explosion,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a U.N. meeting in Morocco last week, in an implicit warning to Trump.

China has vowed to take a leadership role if the U.S. leaves.

McCarthy said her focus now is on ensuring a smooth transition, although she said she has not yet heard from Trump’s transition team.

Facing the potential to have years of work upended by a new administration, McCarthy struck a hopeful tone, saying that her successor would uphold the core mission of environmental protection and expressing hope that the next administration would keep up the work EPA has already done.

“The inevitability of our clean-energy future is bigger than any one person or nation,” McCarthy said. “And it must be guided by a simple, profound truth: We don’t have to choose economy or environment; we can, and must, choose both.”

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