Climate

George Bush’s EPA Chief: Clean Power Plan Is ‘Most Flexible Thing’ The Agency Has Done

CREDIT: Susan Walsh, AP

Former EPA chief Christine Whitman at 2008 Republican National Convention.

In an exclusive interview, former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman said the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is “the most flexible thing,” the agency has ever done.

Whitman is the former Republican governor of New Jersey who ran the Environmental Protection Agency at the start of the George W. Bush administration. She spoke with Climate Progress on a range of issues, including the CPP, nuclear power, the urgent need for climate action, and why she “certainly” doesn’t “talk about climate change … to the Republicans” on Capitol Hill.

The CPP is a set of carbon pollution standards for existing power plants issued by the EPA in consultation with the public, industry, and states. The Supreme Court said back in 2007 that the EPA was legally required to put in place such standards once CO2 was scientifically determined to endanger public health and well-being, which it obviously does.

“EPA does have the authority,” explained Whitman last year in Senate testimony. “The law says so and the Supreme Court has said so, twice. The matter, I believe, should be put to rest.”

While many of her fellow Republicans have attacked the CPP as harmful to U.S. jobs and the competitiveness of American business, Whitman explained to Climate Progress why that wasn’t true. First, she points out that from 1985 to 2008, we had a “booming economy” that nearly doubled GDP — with energy use rising 30 percent at the same time emissions from six major regulated pollutants dropped 60 percent. So, “the idea the EPA is a job killer is false.”

Second, in terms of the CPP, “What EPA did was to allow as much flexibility as frankly I’ve ever seen them be able to create in a regulation.” That is, the CPP in particular gives more options to states and industry to meet the new standards than it had in any previous regulation, enabling them to use a wide variety of strategies to advance a wide variety of clean energy technologies, including energy efficiency.

“I believe they have gone as far as they can possibly go,” noted Whitman. She has unique experience on this subject, “having tried at various times when I was at EPA to provide some flexibility in getting clean-air standards — and getting beaten back every single time and losing in court.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that the CPP will have at most a minimal impact on jobs and the economy. Indeed, a July study from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that if states and utilities take advantage of the remarkable flexibility EPA has given them, they can achieve the CO2 targets while actually lowering the electricity bills of their customers.

And once you realize that climate action is inevitable — that the CPP is the very least the United States can do as a moral nation — then what matters most is to design as flexible an implementation plan as possible, which is precisely what EPA did.

Whitman realizes that inevitability. Back in June 2013, Obama announced his “Climate Action Plan” would include “tough new rules to cut carbon pollution” — rules that “build on state leadership, provide flexibility, and take advantage of a wide range of energy sources and technologies….”

Two months later, Whitman joined with other former EPA chiefs from GOP administrations — William Ruckelshaus (under Nixon and Reagan), Lee Thomas (Reagan), and William Reilly (George H.W. Bush)– to pen a New York Times op-ed, “A Republican Case for Climate Action.” Whitman et al wrote:

Mr. Obama’s plan is just a start. More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.

That op-ed noted, “A market-based approach, like a carbon tax, would be the best path to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but that is unachievable in the current political gridlock in Washington.” So the authors support President Obama pursuing the regulatory approach.

When asked what she says to members of Congress in her own party who take a skeptical view that more will be required, Whitman explains we need a “national energy plan” that is “clean, green, affordable and reliable.” She added, “I don’t even talk about climate change really anymore — certainly not to the Republicans.” She talks instead about clean air, quality of life, health, longevity, cost avoidance, and jobs.

Whitman was speaking to CP in her role as co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy (CASEnergy) Coalition, which is an advocacy group supported by the Nuclear Energy Institute. She argues that nuclear power needs to be part of the mix to meet the Clean Power Plan, while acknowledging that many competitors, such as shale gas, are cheaper.