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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Passing the Test

Air Date: Week of January 16, 2009

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The people who will push the new president's ambitious agenda on clean energy and climate change passed their first hurdle: confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate. Now the real work begins for the future heads of the Energy and Interior Departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. Living on Earth's Jeff Young talks with host Steve Curwood about the hearings in Washington.

Transcript

CURWOOD: By and large, the other key members of Barack Obama’s team will easily win confirmation in the Senate. But confirmation hearings gave a hint of the very tough job ahead for the people who will lead the Interior and Energy departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young joins us now from Washington with more on, what I guess you could call, the Big Three cabinet positions when it comes to energy and the environment.

YOUNG: I think that’s right Steve—energy, interior, and EPA—those three will be the ones on the front lines with this ambitious agenda that Obama has set for clean energy and climate change. And it’s a huge job—let’s be clear, if he sticks to the plan he outlined during the campaign this means changing the very basis of our country’s energy economy, no small job. And that’s in addition to the other very important work these agencies do. The Senators who questioned these nominees say Obama has picked highly qualified people who are up to the job: Lisa Jackson of New Jersey’s environment department to lead the EPA; Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado for the Interior Secretary post; and physicist Steven Chu for Energy Secretary.

CURWOOD: Jeff I want to focus on Steven Chu because his credentials really stand out—he’s got a Nobel Prize, he was in charge of one of the country's top energy laboratories at Lawrence Berkeley. But I take it some of his past public comments might have ruffled a few feathers in the Senate?

YOUNG: For years Chu has been very outspoken about the danger of climate change and our continued dependence on fossil fuels. He has talked about the need for higher fuel prices if we want to spur development of alternatives, and he’s expressed deep concern about coal in particular. So there was a lot of attention to those statements.

CURWOOD: Yes, saying things as a scientist is one thing but as a nominee for energy secretary, well, that’s quite another. So did he backpedal on any of those, Jeff?

YOUNG: On some, yes, and on others he stood his ground. The very first thing Chu stressed in his testimony was the importance of dealing with climate change:

CHU: Climate change is a growing and pressing problem. It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and our grandchildren.

YOUNG: Chu says Obama is committed to a cap and trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions and put a price on carbon. And Chu is still very gung ho—to use his words—on energy efficiency and renewable energy. That was the major focus of his work at the Lawrence Berkeley lab and it’s where he got most excited in the hearings.

CURWOOD: So all of that is consistent with what we’ve heard from him before, where did you hear Dr. Chu backing away from some things he’s said?

YOUNG: On coal and on gas prices, he had to do a little dancing. For example this was Chu speaking at an event two years ago, back when he was just an outspoken scientist, talking about coal:

CHU: We have lots of fossil fuels. That’s really both good and bad news. We won’t run out of energy but there’s enough carbon in the ground to cook us. Coal is my worst nightmare.

YOUNG: Well that was then. This is Chu now as energy secretary nominee:

CHU: I said that in the following context. If the world continues to use coal the way we’re using it today, and the world I mean, in particular not just the United States, but China, India, and Russia, then it is a pretty bad dream. But I also say, many times in my talks, that coal is an abundant resource in the world. India, China, Russia and the United States will not turn their backs on coal, so it is imperative to figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible.

YOUNG: And once upon a time, Chu once expressed doubts about carbon capture and storage - what’s sometimes called clean coal - and whether that could work. Now he supports increasing investment in carbon capture.

He also had to pull back from earlier statements about the price of gas. Last year he told the Wall Street Journal he thought we should be paying about what the European Union pays for gas. Well, none of that talk now. He makes it clear he’s sensitive to consumer concerns about gas prices and any talk of a gas tax is off the table.

CURWOOD: Jeff, what about nuclear power? That’s an area where Obama has seemed deliberately vague. Did Chu clarify things at all?

YOUNG: He still preferred to keep it a bit vague. He said he’ll speed up the government’s guaranteed loan program - that’s very important to the nuclear industry to build new power plants. But he’s also concerned about the very high cost of nuclear power.

As for the waste issue, I thought it was very interesting that Mr. Chu said he wants more research into reprocessing nuclear waste. That’s controversial because while it can cut the amount of radioactive waste it can also increase the material that could be used in nuclear weapons.

And on all of these, Chu made it clear that he will follow the science when making big decisions. That’s something I heard all three of these nominees say: science will be our guide. To my ears, that was a sort of implicit rebuke of the Bush administration and the way it’s been setting policy.

CURWOOD: Jeff, stick around because after the break I want to her more about how these nominees say they will address the question of sound science.

You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Thunderball “Angela’s Lament” from Scorpio Rising (Eighteenth Street Lounge 2001)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

JACKSON: Science must be the backbone of what EPA does. If I am confirmed, political appointees will not compromise the integrity of technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.

CURWOOD: That’s Lisa Jackson, the woman president-elect Obama has picked to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young is telling us what we learned about Ms. Jackson and the others on Obama’s environment team during their Senate confirmation hearings.

And Jeff, it sounds like Ms. Jackson wants to change how EPA’s been doing business?

YOUNG: There’s a new sheriff in town. That was kind of the theme for all of these nominees who said, we realize there are big problems with the way these agencies have operated and we will fix those.

For much of the past eight years the EPA has simply not been making policy based on what its own scientists recommend. Whether it was climate change or clean air we heard consistent complaints from staff scientists and science advisory boards that they were ignored or overturned. The agency has also been very slow—deliberately slow, some would say—in its response to a Supreme Court decision on global warming. All of this means Jackson will inherit a lot of unfinished business.

CURWOOD: And the biggest one probably is what to do about regulating greenhouse gases. Is she going to use the Clean Air Act to limit CO2?

YOUNG: Jackson indicated she is willing to use that authority but she wants to work with Congress as they address climate change through new legislation. So right out of the gate, she says she will review the waiver that California and other states want that would allow them to limit the CO2 from autos. The Bush EPA denied that waiver. If Obama’s EPA approves it that means about half the US auto market would have to meet much higher standards for fuel efficiency.

Now as for limiting CO2 from industrial sources, again, Jackson prefers to give Congress time to act. And she sought to ease business concerns about that.

JACKSON: One thing I can pledge is we will be reasonable, thoughtful and deliberate as we move toward our future, as we begin to address global warming gases.

YOUNG: But one way or the other—whether it’s Congress writing new law or EPA using existing law - we are headed toward limits on greenhouse gases. And that’s one thing Jackson worked on a lot when she ran New Jersey’s environmental department.

CURWOD: What about other things EPA deals with—toxics, hazardous waste cleanup—did you get a sense of her priorities there?

YOUNG: There are a few specific issues I think she’ll act on soon. She says she’ll review the agency’s inaction on perchlorate—that’s a rocket fuel ingredient that’s tainted drinking water in more than half the states. And there will be an effort to regulate the toxic fly ash left over from coal fired power plants. Those recent fly ash spills in Tennessee and Alabama highlighted the dangers of leaving those waste piles unregulated. And then of course there’s Superfund. The program that’s supposed to be cleaning up the country’s worst toxic waste sites is chronically under-funded. And about 90 of the sites on the list are still threatening human health. Jackson will feel heat to do something on that.

CURWOOD: Jeff, the Interior Department is the other key player here. Colorado Senator Ken Salazar looks like a lock to be the new Interior Secretary. Tell me about what he plans to do there.

YOUNG: Interior is such an important department—altogether they manage about 20 percent of the entire country’s landmass. And almost everywhere you look in that 20 percent you see big thorny issues to deal with—national parks don’t have money for maintenance, mining and drilling on public lands is leaving a mess behind, and then there’s the offshore drilling question. Ken Salazar is going to have his hands full just with those—but wait, there’s more. He’s also going to have to clean up the ethical mess left behind by the outgoing administration.

CURWOOD: Ah yes, I remember something about interior department officials getting a little too cozy with the energy companies they were supposed to be regulating.

YOUNG: That’s a polite way of putting it. In one office interior department workers were actually sleeping with oil company workers. Another high-ranking interior official was convicted on corruption charges related to the Jack Abramhoff scandal; and another left her job after scientists said she forced them to change data on endangered species studies. Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon put it in perspective in this exchange with Salazar.

WYDEN: You have some heavy lifting ahead. In political suites in interior they have regularly been trampling science. Now you have to go in there and drain the swamp.

SALAZAR: We will be working on that from day one.

YOUNG: Now Salazar got nothing but praise form his old senate colleagues. All three of these confirmation votes - Salazar, Jackson and Mr. Chu at energy—are slam dunks. But the jobs ahead for them are anything but. If they’re serious about the agenda they’ve laid out—to really address climate change and really reform these agencies—well I think they’re walking into three of the toughest jobs in Washington.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Jeff Young in Washington. Thanks.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Steve.

 

Links

Listen to Living on Earth’s profile of EPA nominee Lisa Jackson

A lecture by Energy Deptartment nominee Steven Chu on climate change

The Senate website for Interior Department nominee Ken Salazar

 

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