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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