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EPA chief Gina McCarthy on maintaining a ‘diverse energy mix’ for America

October 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In June, the Obama administration called for new pollution standards for power plants, and the new EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, has followed through with a proposal for new rules. Ray Suarez reports on pushback from the coal industry, while Judy Woodruff talks to McCarthy about pollution and energy priorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to energy and the environment and to the crucial and often controversial role of the EPA.

Ray Suarez begins with some background on the agency and its new leader.

MAN: The president of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: To find a new chief, President Obama didn’t have to go far. He went directly to the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and selected a nominee with an extensive environmental record.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Gina has focused on practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing. She’s earned a reputation as a straight shooter. She welcomes different points of views.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, McCarthy had worked for Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. She was confirmed as EPA administrator in July, and quickly focused on climate change.

In June, at Georgetown University, the president gave notice: If Congress will not act, the administration will.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.


RAY SUAREZ: In September, McCarthy did just that, proposing rules that require new power plants to capture carbon emissions. She insisted it is not an assault on coal.

GINA MCCARTHY, Environmental Protection Agency: I believe this proposal, rather than killing future coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of the diverse mix in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: The EPA is expected to issue rules for existing plants next summer.

But the power industry argues the move away from coal is already under way. An EPA report this week said emissions from existing power plants in 2012 were lower than the year before, and down 10 percent from two years ago. Part of that trend was visible last summer in Colorado, where this coal-fired plant was being demolished to be replaced by a new plant using natural gas.

It’s in large part because hydraulic fracturing and new drilling techniques have made gas far more available and cheaper. It’s also in anticipation of more regulations. Power industry officials argue the transition should be left to them, not the EPA.

LEE BOUGHEY, Tri-State Generation and Transmission: The EPA has grossly exceeded their authority when it comes to new regulations that affect coal plants. We need to make sure that we don’t arbitrarily take options off the table. We can’t take a coal option off the table. We can’t only rely on gas.

RAY SUAREZ: The pushback continues. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the EPA’s power plant regulations on the question of whether the agency went too far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke with Gina McCarthy about a number of these issues at EPA headquarters in Washington this afternoon.

Administrator Gina McCarthy, thank you very much for talking with us.

GINA MCCARTHY: It’s great to be here, Judy. Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have been issuing new regulations, proposed regulations having to do with future coal-fired power plants, and then down the road, more regulations will be coming on existing coal plants.

GINA MCCARTHY: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the questions being asked is, why the emphasis on this, when the country’s reliance on coal is coming down with the increased finding that — that natural gas is less expensive? Why, then, the need for all these regulations?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, Judy, it all comes down to public health.

It all comes down to making sure that we’re leaving our children with a safer, stable, healthier environment. It’s all about moving forward with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.


Right now, we’re looking at two things. One is that power plants are really one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the cause of climate change. And what we need to do is take a look at future power plants that are being constructed, so they can take — take advantage of innovative technologies of the future.

When we build a power plant, we expect that to be around for 70 years. Why aren’t we addressing that issue today and making sure we’re building a clean energy future? And, at the same time, we have to look at the power plants that are generating electricity today. We need to look at the technologies available to them.

We need to make sure that we work with states to get as clean a mix as we can today and lower carbon pollution moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I’m sure you know what the — what the industry is saying coming back. The coal industry, the utilities are saying, but this is a technology that is very expensive. Many of them are saying it’s going to put them out of business because it is so — it’s prohibitively expensive.

GINA MCCARTHY: Actually, our proposed rule on future power plants really looks at technology that we believe is available today.

Now, it’s not without cost, but what you’re looking at is providing a certain pathway for every type of diverse fuel that is available today and making sure they have a place in a carbon-constrained future. It’s not about adding costs. It is about providing certainty that there is a future for coal and a future that allows them to manage their carbon emissions effectively, at a time when we know they need to be managed for public health and for our environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other point the industry is making is that this is not a technology that’s been proven on a wide scale. It’s been tried here and there, but they say it isn’t really known that it’s going to work if it’s used wide — in a widespread way.

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, this is what we do know.

We know that carbon capture and sequestration, the three components, capturing the CO2, and making sure that we can transport it and store it, all of those components have been happening for years. What we’re talking about here is developing that up to a new level where it’s able to be used in current power plants.

Now, why am I confident? Because I know the technology components are available. What I also know is two of the power plants that are being constructed today, the new power plants, are actually using CCS. They’re actually 75 percent complete. Again, it’s not without cost, but it’s a certain pathway forward so that coal can remain part of the mix. We know it is today. We know it will be in the future.

This is providing them a longer horizon and anticipating that these technologies will grow as long as we’re investing in them. This should draw that investment that we need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, you have some who are part of the environmental community looking at what you’re doing.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And they’re saying, how come you’re not focusing on more on the pollution that is coming out of the existing coal-fired power plants…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … not — not looking, for example, at mercury, dangerous levels, what they say are dangerous levels of mercury…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … coming out?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, Judy, we did actually tackle the mercury issue.

We passed a law that is very comprehensive that is driving the industry to put on the kind of modern technologies available to reduce mercury emissions. Now, that’s also challenging the coal industry to make sure that they’re treating carbon emissions the same way as they have been treating mercury and arsenic and other pollutants that they’re — they have been challenged to control for decades.

Carbon is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. We’re doing the same thing for carbon we have done for those other pollutants moving forward. And my job really is to control pollution and deal with the environmental challenges that we’re facing, one of which is climate change.

It’s really not to dictate the energy of the future. It’s to deal with the energy we have today and make sure there’s a pathway forward that it can be as clean as it can be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you, but the other — I was going to say the other half of the environmental argument is that there are these toxic sludge waste sites. These are emissions that have been built up in these plants.

And they say the administration — again, talking to folks in the environmental community, they say this administration hasn’t done enough to focus on getting those cleaned up.

GINA MCCARTHY: Oh, I think we’re moving on all fronts, Judy.

We’re moving forward on the air front, as well as the water front. And I think they know that. I think that we need to look comprehensively at all of the challenges associated with the continued use of fossil fuel, while we’re also investing in renewable energy. If you take a look at the history of this administration, since President Obama came in, we have doubled the amount of electricity generation from renewable fuels.

What we’re doing here at EPA is making sure that the technologies today and the technologies of the future are as clean as we can make them and that — where innovation is being driven. And so we hope that this will provide this country with a base to be competitive in the future, to have as clean an energy as we can, and provide consumers with continued inexpensive electricity moving forward that they can really rely on in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in connection with that, I want to ask you about — about the natural gas that is now coming online…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … at a cheaper price than alternative sources of energy.

The sense is that President Obama is promoting hydraulic fracturing known as fracking as part of his energy agenda. Again, in the environmental community, the question is, doesn’t this undercut what you’re trying to do when it comes to keeping the environment clean?

GINA MCCARTHY: I think the president’s been very clear that we’re looking at maintaining a diverse energy mix.

There’s no question that natural gas is plentiful. There’s no question that hydrofracking has allowed more natural gas to get into the market. That has lowered the price of natural gas. That’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing some of these inefficient old coal facilities going out of business. It’s not about EPA regulations, necessarily. It’s really about the market itself.

All of these things are moving forward. We’re also looking at hydrofracking, Judy. We’re not — we’re not closing our eyes to the challenges associated with that, because while the president touts the advantage of natural gas, as he should, he’s also saying it has to be safe and responsible. EPA is part of the administrative team to make sure that’s the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The final, I should say, hot potato issue or — and there are many of them — this is maybe not just one more.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is the Keystone XL pipeline extension.

A lot of people believe the president is just waiting to approve this for all sorts of reasons, as you mentioned, the kind of — he does have an energy agenda. But if he were to do that, does that undercut what you all are trying to do in terms of clean energy, promoting the environment?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I’m not going to anticipate what the decision is on Keystone. It is certainly going to be up to the Department of State to make those decisions.

But I do know that it’s been an open process. EPA has commented on that, on that proposal moving forward, and we will see where that heads. But nothing is going to undercut the fact that this administration has doubled fuel economy, which decreases the amount of greenhouse gases from mobile sources.

We have shown time and time again that we’re addressing the challenges of today in a way that continue to grow the economy, but is really getting at the pollution that is most dangerous for people: mercury, arsenic, carbon. These are things that we have been challenging wholeheartedly and aggressively. We have been making great strides forward.

No one project is going to take that away from us, but we are going to keep building on that success moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, thank you very much for talking with us.

GINA MCCARTHY: It’s great to be here. Thank you.