Zichal hedges on carbon rules while greens apply pressure

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2013

President Obama’s top climate adviser said yesterday that the White House would follow this weekend’s announcement with China on hydrofluorocarbons with other major steps to curb greenhouse gases at home and internationally.

Heather Zichal told a room full of green energy entrepreneurs and regulators from deeply blue Rhode Island that Obama continues to rank climate change high on his agenda for the second term and will use the tools at his disposal to make progress on the issue.

“Climate change is not an issue that in 30, 40 or 50 years we can afford to look back on and say we got it wrong,” Zichal told the Capitol Hill meeting, presided over by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “or we didn’t do enough, or we waited too long.”

She called climate change a “more pressing priority” than expanded energy development and promised that the administration would make new progress on it in the coming months.

But Zichal did not say how the administration would handle the highest-profile decisions now facing it on climate change.

The Keystone XL oil pipeline — which environmentalists have said would add greatly to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — did not figure in her remarks. While the White House has sought to put distance between the president and the decision of whether to permit the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, Obama will have the last say.

And although Zichal touted the role the Clean Air Act played in allowing the administration to curb vehicle greenhouse gas emissions during Obama’s first term, she skirted environmentalists’ top ask for his second term: a carbon dioxide rule for existing power plants.

The administration insists that it has no plans to regulate greenhouse gases from today’s fleet, despite having agreed to do so under the terms of a 2010 settlement agreement with states and environmentalists.

Zichal did mention a power plant mercury rule finalized last year, which is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, too, by encouraging the retirement of aging coal-fired power plants. And she alluded to EPA’s CO2 proposal for new power plants, which was released last year.

“Looking to the future, we will continue to build on this progress using the tools of the Clean Air Act to advance a broader climate agenda,” she said.

Zichal spoke after Obama delivered environmentalists a major victory Saturday, announcing that the United States would work with China to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down production and use of heat-trapping HFCs (E&E Daily, June 10).

China and India had long opposed a U.S.-backed HFC amendment to the protocol, which addresses ozone-depleting substances.

Zichal promised her audience that more developments like Saturday’s announcement would follow.

“We see that as just the first step of a long and robust climate change agenda for the second term,” she said.

The next opportunity to raise the HFC issue will come soon. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to travel to New Delhi the week of June 24 to participate in a strategic dialogue with India, and environmentalists have urged him to raise the issue there.

Zichal said there might also be opportunities to find international agreement on efficiency and sector-based CO2 reduction

These collaborations will “move our agenda forward at home, but at the same time buy the world some time while leaders continue to hash out an international climate treaty and figure out how to make deeper emissions cuts in the future,” she said.

Zichal also touted the administration’s commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, boost energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy on public lands, and help state and local governments prepare for the effects of climate change.

Zichal shared the podium yesterday with some of Congress’ most ardent supporters of climate change action, including Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

The pair are co-chairmen of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which has set the goal of finding new opportunities for the administration to cut emissions using its existing authorities — and to press the White House to use them.

Whitehouse said he understands why EPA may be reluctant to move new greenhouse gas regulations now.

“This is obviously a period where we need to be a little bit more quiet on this issue while we get an up-or-down vote on Gina McCarthy as the administrator of the EPA,” he said. He quoted the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.): “Never tease the crocodile until you’ve crossed the stream.”

McCarthy’s nomination was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, but a floor vote has not been scheduled.

But no matter the outcome of that vote, said Whitehouse, “then I think we need to go absolutely all-in.”

“Fortunately, we don’t need congressional action to tackle climate change,” Waxman said. “President Obama, his Cabinet, the states — they all have ample authority under current law to tackle climate change.”

Waxman and Whitehouse are compiling a list of suggestions for ways the administration can make the most of the tools at its disposal. Waxman noted that the rulemaking process is long and involved, and it will take much of Obama’s second term to complete new rules for power plants or other sectors.

“We have to press them not only to take bold and ambitious action on many fronts, but to do it fast in order to make the timetable work,” he said.

The environmental community is also pressing the administration to make strides, especially when it comes to the power plant rules.

EPA missed a deadline in April to finalize its rule for new power plants, and it has yet to say whether it will write a rule for today’s fleet, which contributes 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a brief interview that any plan to tackle U.S. emissions must sharply reduce CO2 from power plants.

“There’s just no other way to get there,” she said

NRDC yesterday launched an ad campaign, featuring actor Robert Redford, aimed at holding the administration’s feet to the fire on both rules. And it is joining with other litigants in “evaluating” how and when to go back to court to compel EPA to finalize the new power plant rule, she said.

Beinecke said she does not doubt the president’s commitment to address climate change, but she wants to see a plan for how he intends to do it. She, too, cited the length of the rulemaking process.

“We’re calling on the administration to get going on these rules,” she said. “Time is running out, and we’re going to get louder and louder until we get that commitment to go forward.”