Obama’s Climate Change Dilemma

Last Thursday, Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the appointment of my successor as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA, Judith Enck, who had been serving as Deputy Secretary of the Environment under New York Governors Eliot Spitzer and David Patterson. Simultaneously, Lisa also announced the appointment of other Regional Administrators in Regions 1, 3, 6, and 9.


It is most interesting that three of the five new Regional Administrators, including Judith Enck, have deep roots in the environmental advocacy community. I do not say this in any negative way. President Obama is deeply committed to climate change policies along the lines of those advocated by former Vice President Al Gore. The Regional Administrator appointments reflect the ideology of not only President Obama and Lisa Jackson but also that of White House Climate Change Czar Carol Browner.


The difficulty facing Obama and Lisa Jackson is that the present cap-and-trade legislation being considered by the United States Senate is now intertwined with the same political considerations impeding the progress of the President’s health care package. The final outcome of both legislative proposals is not yet predictable, and the results in both cases will depend upon the decision of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as to whether to cast the 60th vote for cloture needed to end a Republican filibuster.


I wrote extensively and critically about the version of cap-and-trade legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in my July 1, 2009 column in this space. My major criticism of this legislation was its woefully inadequate provisions to encourage nuclear power.


As Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA, I encouraged the expansion of clean and safe nuclear energy. My involvements in the cases in New York of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant and the former West Valley Reprocessing Facility were focused on ensuring safe disposal of both low and high level nuclear waste. At Indian Point, I also injected into the license review process a demand that the facility be secure against any terrorist threat in the post 9-11 world. In the case of the Oyster Creek, New Jersey facility, in addition to the usual safety and waste concerns, a major additional priority was the avoidance of destruction of fish.


My view continues to be that if the waste issue is effectively resolved, nuclear power is indeed the most “green” form of energy. Nuclear power plants are virtually emission free in terms of criteria pollutants, air toxics, and greenhouse gases.


Additionally, both in terms of job creation and cost per unit of energy produced, nuclear power is far more efficient and effective than solar and wind. While as Regional Administrator I encouraged wind and solar projects as well, particularly the placement of solar panels on closed landfills, I believe it is utopian to believe that wind and solar projects alone could meet the increasing baseload needs for clean and safe energy in New York and New Jersey.


In the Senate, there are currently negotiations underway between Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) to insert provisions into the legislation that would promote nuclear power as an efficient low greenhouse gas emission energy alternative. Another proposal of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) would promote the building of 100 new nuclear power plants.


It appears doubtful that any climate change bill that does not significantly promote nuclear power can pass the Senate. In fact, if the House-passed legislation is not significantly amended, the Republican Senate minority may filibuster the cap-and-trade bill.


Joe Lieberman is very much a supporter of nuclear power. Despite his history of sponsorship and support for climate change legislation, it is highly unlikely that he would vote for cloture to cut off a Republican filibuster unless the legislation was amended to meet his objectives in promoting nuclear energy.


The dilemma the Obama administration faces is that the same environmental advocacy organizations that support Obama’s climate change initiatives also, for the most part, take a dim view of nuclear power. If the legislation that passes the Senate in their view excessively promotes nuclear power, they will pressure the White House and the House of Representatives to reject the Senate legislation. They will not be mollified by the fact that the Obama administration appointed Regional Administrators who have deep roots in these very same environmental advocacy organizations.


If Congress does not pass climate change legislation, the EPA has the power to issue greenhouse gas regulations, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court holding in the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case. In fact, the EPA is currently developing such regulations.


The regulatory difficulty for the EPA, however, is in defining what constitutes an “emission source”. Federal agencies are not immune from Congressional influence, and individual key Representatives and Senators will pressure the EPA to carve out exclusions and exceptions for emission sources in their respective states. This will lead to litigation challenging the regulations from states and special interests who do not receive special treatment from the EPA in the regulatory process. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the regulations could become effective before 2012 even in the absence of litigation.


Accordingly, the Obama administration has a definite preference for legislation. In this regard, in negotiating with the House and Senate leadership of both parties, Lisa Jackson will play a key role.


As Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA, I worked very closely with Lisa Jackson while she served as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Despite the differences in our political philosophies and affiliations, we actually together achieved significant accomplishments, particularly with regard to the remediation of the Passaic River, the nation’s most polluted waterway.


Lisa is a person of exceptional scientific and technical knowledge, but it was her people skills and strong pragmatism that enabled us to have a good working relationship. These attributes should serve her well as she seeks a legislative solution to the Obama administration’s climate change dilemma.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. Obama’s Climate Change Dilemma