GWEN IFILL: We get two views about these plans and the potential impact. Frances Beinecke is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, an environmental advocacy group. And Scott Segal is a lobbyist and partner with Bracewell & Giuliani. The firm represents a number of big utilities that have coal-fired power plants, as well as companies pushing for the Keystone pipeline extension.
Frances Beinecke, the president said today that he’s going direct EPA to work with the states to establish pollution standards for new and existing plants. At first blush, it doesn’t sound like a lot.
FRANCES BEINECKE, President, Natural Resources Defense Council: Well, actually, our power plants are 40 percent of our carbon emissions, so if we want to get on the president’s plan to reduce our carbon emissions by 17 percent, we have to take the carbon pollution coming from our power plants head on.
And by directing EPA under the Clean Air Act, the president can put in standards to reduce those emissions significantly. NRDC’s analysis shows that we can reduce those emissions by 26 percent, which would be 10 percent of our carbon footprint right now. So it’s the single most important thing the president can do to get us on a trajectory towards a safer climate future.
GWEN IFILL: Is that a reasonable or even a laudable goal?
SCOTT SEGAL, Partner, Bracewell & Giuliani: Well, what the president did today was raise the profile of the issue. And that is certainly laudable.
In terms of suggesting new proposals or moving us in new directions, I think a lot of what constitute the president’s plan are strands that had already been on the table, and he perhaps accentuated them a little bit in order to move them forward.
With respect to power plants, I think what most Americans know is that the local power company is already an intensely regulated organization. And even in this administration, some of the most expensive rules in the history of Environmental Protection Agency have come down in the last couple of years regulating these facilities.
As far as the cost concern with reducing carbon from power plants, we don’t know exactly what the president is going to do or what the EPA will do at the end of the day, but if we look, for example, to the cost estimates that were done last time Congress debated significant limitations on power plants, we saw a very credible assessment that talked about hundreds of billions of dollars in lost gross domestic product and several million in net lost jobs, even when you take into account any new jobs that might be created.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Frances Beinecke about it. There is this cost effect on whether there are more jobs created or more jobs lost. Which is so?
FRANCES BEINECKE: Well, actually, it’s a lively debate.
What we have seen is, in the last several years, the unleashing of renewable energy, the commitment to investing in efficiency creates large numbers of jobs. The single fastest growing part of energy generation right now is in the renewable sector in both solar and wind.
So jobs are being created in the clean energy sector. And we have seen more and more opportunity. What the president really focused on was we need to invest in American innovation, invest in a clean energy future, invest in the things that will make this most cost-effective, which is investing in efficiency.
GWEN IFILL: And what some people heard was the president declaring a war on coal.
FRANCES BEINECKE: Well, I don’t think — I think that’s focusing on the wrong thing. This is not a war on coal. This is a commitment to the future of our children and a safe climate future.
For those of us who experienced extreme weather events in the last year — for example, I live in New York. Hurricane Sandy, I can assure you, was devastating. Over $140 billion dollars was spent last year in the United States on extreme weather events, drought, fire, hurricanes. We can’t afford that as a nation. We have to invest in a clean energy future that reduces that threat.
GWEN IFILL: Is it possible to invest in a clean energy future with fossil fuels?
SCOTT SEGAL: Absolutely.
In fact, the president’s own presentation mentions on two separate occasions the need to invest in clean coal. Fortunately, he also embraces a proposal for new power plants, carbon emissions that would quite potentially discourage investment, innovation in these new facilities.
If I was sure or even a little bit sure that we could reduce severe weather events because of anything announced today, this would be an entirely different debate. But the unfortunate reality is this. Today was all about unilateral action and putting — and frankly putting the international leadership with airy rhetoric at the end of the speech.
That’s exactly backwards. If we undertake unilateral action of this sort, we actually give away our ability to negotiate comprehensive international agreements, and worse yet, by increasing energy prices in the United States, we export manufacturing facilities overseas and then have to import those goods back to the United States, with the potential of actually increasing carbon emissions, unless we approach these regulations very, very carefully.
GWEN IFILL: Is executive action or unilateral action, as Scott Segal puts it, is that the way to approach this?
FRANCES BEINECKE: I think what the president is demonstrating, what he said very clearly, particularly regarding international, is the United States has to lead.
It’s our responsibility as the largest economy and the second largest emitter to show how we can have a future that’s safe for climate — for our climate future.
GWEN IFILL: But the president has to lead, not necessarily Congress.
FRANCES BEINECKE: The president has to lead.
He has the executive authority. We all know we cannot get — there’s no path through Congress right now, and yet the climate scourge is increasing and increasing and increasing. So the president is demonstrating his commitment. He made that commitment in the inaugural address. He made hit in the State of the Union, and what he did today was told the American public the path that he’s going to follow using his authority. It’s an important moment.
GWEN IFILL: The president said today also in this speech that he wouldn’t approve the Keystone pipeline, much-debated Keystone pipeline plan, if it added to carbon emissions. But it’s unclear whether it does or not. So, how did you read that, as good news or bad news for your side?
SCOTT SEGAL: Well, it was a change, what the president said, from the printed text to what he actually said at Georgetown.
What he actually said was very fascinating. He said he wouldn’t approve it if there were a significant net increase in carbon emissions. Well, that question when — it’s already been asked and answered. The State Department has said there’s not a significant net increase in carbon emissions, because the Canadians might have been born last at night, but — they might have been born at night, but they weren’t born last night.
And that — oil sands, that bitumen from oil sands is going to find its way to the United States and probably to other international markets, whether there’s a KXL pipeline or not. As a result, the irony is if you don’t build a state-of-the-art pipeline, you increase carbon emissions.
GWEN IFILL: I have heard the opposite.
FRANCES BEINECKE: I think that’s wrong.
I think what the president was saying, he was setting a very high bar. He was showing that his bar for addressing and making a decision on the Keystone pipeline was different from what he has said in the past. He was saying this can’t be more deleterious to climate.
EPA, in reviewing the State Department document, said carbon would increase as a result of this. And the fact is that the Canadians turned down one of their routes, the route out through British Columbia. So they can’t even get it out from their own country. Why should we take it through ours? In our view, we should turn it down.
SCOTT SEGAL: Well, we’re already taking that bitumen into the United States through Canadian pipelines and then to railroad, to rail traffic, which has a deeper carbon footprint.
GWEN IFILL: But you both assured — you both heard good news from what the president said.
SCOTT SEGAL: Well …
FRANCES BEINECKE: I heard good news. I bet Scott didn’t.
SCOTT SEGAL: I heard — no, no.
In fact, the supporters of the Keystone pipeline actually regard the president’s — what Frances called the high bar as a bar that’s already been met. I must say it’s a little difficult to put all the pieces together. I do agree with that.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we will wait and see what the announcement actually is.
But, in the meantime, thank you so much for helping us understand today’s.
And you can watch the president’s full speech on our YouTube page.