Q&A: Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy discusses Pruitt, WOTUS, and Clean Power Plan
Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says she’s not sad or depressed by the pronouncements now coming from the new administration on rolling back environmental protections. “I am filled with great hope for a number of reasons,” she said. “The core values that created EPA and led it to a really bipartisan support all of its 47 years of existence, still remains.”
McCarthy served as Obama’s EPA chief, replacing Lisa Jackson in 2013, and leading the efforts to tackle climate change. She spoke at the University of Pennsylvania this week. She was there to receive the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s annual Carnot prize and sat down for an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania.
The morning of the interview, the New York Times published a story detailing the daily calendar of current EPA Administer Scott Pruitt, which showed he spends most of his time meeting and dining with industry executives, and virtually no time with public health and environmental advocates. We asked for her reaction to the story.
McCarthy: Well, I just know that I think the most important thing that I felt going into EPA was that the EPA is a public health agency. We have a responsibility to look at how we move the mission of environmental protection forward in a way that delivers clean air and water and land and a stable climate. And so it was my job, I felt, to sort of learn the issues, to sit down with the career staff, understand the history of the law, sit down with the scientists, understand the science, and then make the best policy judgments I could make after doing an enormous outreach, not just with the people who agreed with me, but to those that I didn’t agree and who wouldn’t agree with me, and with the business community as well as environmental constituents. That’s the job of government. Not simply to sit down with your own base and think big thoughts and have them congratulate you.
StateImpact: As you’re looking at what Pruitt is implementing and all this talk about rollbacks, is all of this sound and fury? Because a lot of what they’ve talked about rolling back has been overturned in the courts already. I’m thinking about the challenge to the methane regulations, reversing their decision on the new the ozone rule, and I’m thinking about even WOTUS, the Clean Water Rule. Okay, they got rid of it, but where’s the new proposal? What’s actually going on? How will this really play out?
McCarthy: I think you need to understand that this administration tried to take some short cuts. They tried to say, “I can get rid of this and I can make some changes,” without following the procedures that ensure good public input. And when they did that, the court slapped it down and said, “You know, you just can’t decide unilaterally. There is a process to follow in governance in the United States and it involves significant public comment.” And rules take a long time. And in order to get rid of a rule, you have to do a rule, and that rule has to provide a reason why you want to turn the world on its head and create more uncertainty by overturning a final rule. So you have to say, “the science was wrong, didn’t get the law right, or the facts are different.” And I will guarantee you, with the work that we did in the prior administration, that we looked at the science, we looked at the law, we went and searched out public comment high and low, and we responded to those. And the sole criteria they seem to be looking at is whether it costs business money, not whether they were public health benefits.
Q: It sounds like Pruitt is not listening to career staffers who may have been able to foresee legal hurdles to these rollbacks and prepare for them.
A: So if they’re not listening to the career staff who really understand the issues, and the courts, and the law, and the science, if they’re not listening to them, then they’re gonna have difficulties finding a way to roll back these fundamental protections.
Q: And one of the things that I’ve heard, at least from the industry folks, that under Obama, EPA wanted to go forward with these rules, and they didn’t feel like they needed to sit down with industry and really hear them out and come to any kind of compromise. So I was wondering about your reaction to that criticism.
A: I’m not sure who you’re talking to, but that wasn’t the EPA, in anybody’s experience with EPA. Look, we had a job to do. Many of the rules we did were mandatory requirements under the law. We’re not trying to second guess what Congress told us to do. We’re just trying to do it right, which is our job. And part of the analysis was, is it reasonable? Can you move it forward? Is it respecting the public process? I will bet, we did more outreach than any administration has ever done before. And I’ve met with everybody who had an interest in an issue, either personally or my senior team did. And I know, on most of our rules, when you look at proposals and then you look at the comments that came in, you will see that we digested those comments, we put them through good analysis and scientific and legal screen, and we made significant changes in the final. If we could make it easier for industry to comply, lower the cost, ensure energy reliability and affordability for the public, that’s what we wanted to do.
Q: And just as an example, the “Waters of the U.S.” rule, which, of course, the opponents say, “Well, that was EPA overreach, wanting to regulate ditches and puddles.” And then, of course, the environmentalists saying, “This is horrible. If we roll this back, our drinking water will be contaminated.” There just seems to be extremes on both sides of that issue.
A: Well, the “Waters of the United States,” what we call the Clean Water Rule, was a rule that was done because every constituency group imaginable said there was uncertainty in the system. And the Supreme Court told us, because we didn’t have the science and we didn’t make it clear, what waters deserve to be protected for public health, for our fisheries, and our swimming and recreation? What deserved to be protected? And what didn’t under the law? I personally spent a significant amount of my time understanding where that confusion was and trying to address it. Now, the criticism that you have identified, which is we now include ditches, we actually did exactly what the agriculture community wanted us to do. We defined what waters were there, not by waters that had any water in it at all, but we identified those from a science perspective that needed to be protected because they offered significant protections downstream.
A: And so we narrowed those definitions as much as humanly possible. We didn’t expand them and we made it reasonable and appropriate, and in fact, would save considerable time to the general public and would protect those 130 million people who currently rely on rivers and streams that are essentially unprotected. So this rule should be looked at from its substance, not rhetoric. And people should get together and understand that you can have really good agriculture to provide our food, our fuel, and you can also protect drinking water. And if we don’t figure out how to get away from the rhetoric and into the substance, then all we’re going to be left with is more wells being contaminated, more concerns about how agriculture does its business. And we don’t want that and we don’t need it. And we did our best to try to provide a rule that was reasonable, and narrowed those uncertainties based on science. And when that rule gets looked at from a substantive perspective, I think the courts will see it.
Q: The Clean Power Plan, obviously, that’s a big, weedy, legal issue. And I’ve heard lawyers on both sides of that make, at least what seems to me, reasonable arguments. Is there anything that you would have done differently with the Clean Power Plan to make it stick?
A: Well, let me just say that this is not an issue which I think the general public needs to get in the weeds on. Because there are very few weeds here. What we’re dealing with is understanding that the electricity generating sector, our power plants, are the largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions. And right now, because of the advent of inexpensive solar and wind renewable energy choices, there are, right now, states that were suing us on the Clean Power Plan and are buying the highest percentage of renewable energy. Iowa, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio is getting in the game. The simple fact is that the clean energy trains left the station in this country, and it’s moving forward. The Clean Power Plan was only looking to make sure that there was a standardization for how every state would look at reducing its greenhouse gases to provide a level playing field. And we did it in a way that followed the energy market.
A: We knew what people were buying and what states were buying. So even those states that are suing us are doing the right thing and they’re already well past where we’re asking them to be in 2022. So there’s nothing unreasonable, and there’s nothing illegal about it. In fact, it’s the most flexible, most respectful process we have ever had, that allows states complete flexibility on how to achieve those reductions. And so many of them who don’t want to stand up and be counted are already past 2022. I feel pretty comfortable that this was a reasonable proposal, and I think it’s essential for the United States, especially since this administration is on the road to getting out of Paris. At least, that’s their intent. I think it’s important for the rest of the world to understand that we’re doing something in the United States that we can be proud of, and be part of this overall planetary effort to address climate change.
Q: You talked about the role of science.
A: Yes. Under the Obama administration and under my watch, we moved forward to try to take a look at methane releases, which we do regulate. We regulate both methane as a volatile organic that can pose challenges relative to increased ozone, which is a big public health challenge, and it’s also, in and of itself, a short-lived climate forcer. In other words, it’s a greenhouse gas that has immediate impact, that if you reduce, you can have significant benefits from a climate perspective. And so, on both of those fronts, EPA is obligated to regulate when you identify the problem and we move forward, and this administration is rethinking those steps, but they’re also rethinking how the peer review process is done. Congress is looking at changes to make sure that [EPA’s] science experts or experts that [EPA has] ever given a grant to in the past few years don’t get an opportunity to speak to the research that’s unrelated to their actual work. [EPA] would normally welcome [these scientists] and their expertise.
And to basically say that even if you’re an industry representative, a lobbyist working on a particular issue, then you’d be welcome to be on a peer review process specifically about that issue. That, to us, would not have been appropriate. So the science is being questioned, not just on climate, but on all of our core work that we’ve done as an agency, and it’s very challenging. I don’t know how it’s all going to fall out, but the one thing I know is politics and science don’t mix.
Q: Is there anything that you feel is vulnerable, that could have a significant impact on public health and the environment?
A: I think the important thing to remember is that they haven’t done anything yet. So, it’s really important for people to get active and make sure they comment. Be part of the process, be the active citizen that democracy requires. That’s the most important message.
And I think I feel very confident that we followed the rules we were supposed to. And the only rule that I’ve read in detail that’s really already come out in a proposal was the Clean Water Rule, and it was proposed not to be redone until some future unknown date, but just to go away. It was proposed to be rescinded. And if you look at it, it didn’t cite anything we did wrong on science or the law or fact. It simply said that President Trump said that they should get rid of the rule and argue a different rule based on a legal standard that nine circuit courts have rejected. So I’m not really sure that they’re going to be successful if they don’t do a lot more homework in what they do. They’ll only be successful if people really, for some reason, think that the work of EPA is done and everybody’s drinking clean water, everybody’s breathing clean air, and we have lovely places to live.
A: And I just wanna make sure that EPA continues to be there. And if people feel the same way, they can have different policy inclinations, but they should speak up against an administration’s idea that we don’t need half the scientists at EPA, that we can have the same level of personnel as we had in the ’80s, that we can cut the support we give to states almost in half. That just doesn’t say to me that they’re embracing the mission of that agency or the core values of the American people that started that agency.
This Q & A has been edited for clarity and content.