Global Take on Warming

EPA’s Johnson Wants the Whole World in on Global Warming Solutions

Posted April 20, 2007 at 3:10pm

When confirmed in May 2005, Stephen Johnson became the first professional scientist to head the Environmental Protection Agency with its 18,000 employees and annual budget of almost $8 billion. For more than 25 years he has worked at the agency and dealt with a wide range of issues before ultimately rising to the role of administrator.

Today, Johnson is at the center of the debate over how to deal with what many scientists believe is the grave threat posed by global climate change. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision on the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

As Johnson, and the Bush administration, consider their next steps, Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke sat down last week with Johnson at EPA headquarters to discuss where the agency goes from here.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: What is the Bush administration’s attitude toward global warming? Is man responsible and is it a dire threat to the planet or not?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR STEPHEN JOHNSON: Well, global climate change is a serious issue and from the president certainly and as administrator, we believe that it is a serious problem for our globe, for our nation, and that is why we’ve had really an unparalleled commitment and effort to try to address it.

ROLL CALL: Your critics don’t think you’ve had an unparalleled effort at all. I mean, [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] says that your record is terrible and [former EPA Administrator] Christie Todd Whitman says that you are letting the Chinese call the shots. How do you respond to that?

JOHNSON: Well, when I look at how much we as a nation have invested in the science and the technology as well as even tax incentives, we as a nation from 2001 through today have invested $35 billion in science, technology and even some tax incentives. … There is no other nation in the world that has invested that kind of money, that level of money, in an effort in trying to understand the science and actually develop technologies that can solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

ROLL CALL: Was the administration initially skeptical about the science?

JOHNSON: Well, I think when you look at the history of the climate change issue it actually goes way back all the way to the late 1970s, and in fact if you read the Supreme Court decision of just a few weeks ago they do an excellent job of characterizing, in fact, going through that history. And it goes back to the 1970s, 1978 in fact. And through these years, through multiple administrations, there has been a concern raised, but there has also been a lot of uncertainty associated with the science. And then, also, not only uncertainty with the science but the uncertainty associated with who is going to take on the challenge. Is it just going to be the developed nations? Is it going to be the developing nations? Or is it going to be truly global? So when you look at the history you see a steady progression of investment in the science, a steady better understanding of what the impacts may or may not be, a steady rise in level of concern and a steady engagement of both developed nations as well as developing nations. So it is something that has been certainly on the president’s radar screen from Day One and that, because of investment in the science, we are now seeing even greater concern.

ROLL CALL: What is the level of federal investment in the science?

JOHNSON: In the federal investment in the science we are spending approximately $2 billion this year. We are spending around $3 billion investment in technology. As I said, the total …

ROLL CALL: That sounds like a rather small fraction of the total investment by private sector plus …

JOHNSON: These are federal funds. Of course, I would like to put it in perspective. The total EPA budget, the president’s budget request for 2008 is $7.2 billion. Our total budget dealing with hazardous waste sites, clean water, all of these issues. So when I make the comparison of what we as a nation are investing in global climate change and compare it to the total EPA budget, it is a significant amount.

ROLL CALL: Now what is the EPA response to the Supreme Court decision? How are you handling this decision?

JOHNSON: Well, that is the million dollar question that I have been asked and will continue to be asked. At this point, we are very carefully examining the Supreme Court decision, looking at what options and what actions should follow. The next step in the process is the decision will be remanded back to EPA. As of right now we do not officially have the decision. I expect we will be receiving it; in fact, the deadline is within 25 days. So that date is next week. So I am expecting to get it then. …

ROLL CALL: So what do you do?

JOHNSON: Well, I’m looking at what are the options — first of all understanding what the Supreme Court said. This is a major decision. This is a significant decision by the Supreme Court, which not only has implications for the motor vehicle sector, but given the way the Clean Air Act is constructed it may have significant implications and likely does for other parts of the Clean Air Act. And so …

ROLL CALL: I mean, there is an electric power plant decision coming along.

JOHNSON: Well, there have been a number of petitions that the agency has received over a decade. Some of which were withdrawn without prejudice. Some were held in advance, again, without prejudice for waiting for the Supreme Court decision. So, again, what I am going to be looking at and looking at now is what does this mean for motor vehicles, which the decision was focused on, but what does this mean in a broader application as well.

ROLL CALL: Well, the way I read the decision is that it doesn’t require you to regulate [carbon dioxide] emissions, but if you don’t you are going to have to have a very good reason why not.

JOHNSON: That is exactly right. In [Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia’s dissenting view I think he does really an excellent job of summarizing the position that I, as administrator, am in where he says “the EPA must exercise his judgment in one of three ways: A) By concluding that the pollutant does cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers public welfare, in which case the EPA is required to regulate; B) By concluding that the pollutant does not cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers public welfare, in which case the EPA is not required to regulate; or C) By providing some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger public welfare.” And so to me that is probably the most succinct summary of the options that are before me as administrator.

ROLL CALL: Do you believe that you need additional legislation in order to regulate, should you decide to regulate?

JOHNSON: That is one of the questions that we are asking ourselves. I am asking myself and certainly [the] administration [is] considering that as well. And again, there are, you know, I’ve been at EPA for 26 years and in a number of cases our regulatory authority and doing things administratively are the most efficient and effective way. And I’ve also seen other cases where it really is much more effective for there to be legislation, and that is one of the other questions that we are asking ourselves: Given the Supreme Court decision, given the focus of the Supreme Court decision, what does this mean from an administrative or rule-making process, but then what are the implications or what are the options available with regard to legislation?

ROLL CALL: I mean, there are various pieces of legislation that have been introduced or are going to be introduced by various Congressional committees. What is the administration saying about the kind of legislation that might be desirable?

JOHNSON: Well, there have been certainly a number of pieces of legislation as you point out that have been talked about. There are several, I think, key principles that we are very interested in and … I would like to relate those to a recent meeting I was at with all the environment ministers, the G-8 environment ministers plus five, which also included China, India, Brazil, South Africa. And at the conclusion, we had a two-day meeting in Potsdam, Germany, and there were two issues we focused on: biodiversity and global climate change. In the end, there were a number of general principles that as environment ministers we really all agreed to. One was that global climate change is a problem that we as nations, whether developed or developing, need to address. Second is that global climate change needs to be talked about and dealt with in the context of sustainable economic development. And to me that is a very key point not only for the United States — I would submit for every nation, but certainly the developing nations such as India and China and Brazil and South Korea to name a few. And so that was second point.

Third point … is that technology is the key. If you are a nation such as the United States … and also have a significant reserve of coal, for example, one would not want to abandon that for energy/security reasons. One would want to use that for energy/security reasons, but because of global climate change issues we need to clean it up, and that is why technology is the key. And it is not only for coal, it is for automobiles, it is for solar and sort of all the rest. …

Fourth point was there are many tools in our toolbox for dealing with [climate change]. Some of it’s voluntary. Some of it’s mandatory. And each country will use an array of those tools to address it.

And then the last point which I just wanted to make is that there was recognition both by the developed nations and the developing nations that the developing nations need to do more. … But when you look at particularly those first five principles, those really serve as, I think, excellent principles for discussion whether we are on the international scene or in the domestic scene legislatively.

ROLL CALL: The environmentalists in the United States believe that cap and trade is the solution here, that you put a mandatory cap on and let people trade their emission rights. What is the administration’s attitude toward that policy?

JOHNSON: With regard to [carbon dioxide] emissions, we have not taken a position on cap and trade or carbon tax or carbon incentive. Again, there are a number of tools in the toolbox that we could exercise including, again, the things that we have been doing like what the president has asked for — the 20 in 10 — 20 percent reduction in fuel usage in 10 years.

ROLL CALL: Including gasoline usage?

JOHNSON: Well, it is gasoline usage but it is also part of that 20 percent comes from increasing the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards] or increasing the efficiency of automobiles. And so if that is mandatory that requires legislation, at least that was the president’s intent in presenting it in the State of the Union. So there are multiple approaches.

ROLL CALL: If you actually got that plan through, what percentage dent would that take out of America’s carbon emissions per year?

JOHNSON: Well, again, there are a variety of ways to run the numbers. I think what I would characterize as sort of the maximum benefit, we would in essence negate the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, from motor vehicles. And so is there a significant opportunity for energy security and environmental gain with this? Absolutely.

ROLL CALL: So you would hold vehicle emissions constant if you got through the 20 in 10 proposal?

JOHNSON: That is correct.

ROLL CALL: And vehicle emissions account for what percent of carbon emissions?

JOHNSON: Well, we have generally about 30 percent, about a third, from transportation. About 40 percent for electricity generation. And then industry, about 15 percent. Commercial and residential account for the remaining 11 percent.

ROLL CALL: Now environmentalists are calling for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Is that within the realm of possibility?

JOHNSON: Well, again, as all the environment ministers agreed the technology is the key. Given today’s technology it would be impossible. Now, what are among the tools in the toolbox? Certainly in the United States moving to nuclear power. It has been 30 years since we in the United States have opened a nuclear power plant. And so nuclear is certainly something that as an administration and certainly from an environmental protection standpoint and [carbon dioxide] emissions standpoint, it is something that we need to bring more nuclear power plants online more quickly. The opportunities for solar, the opportunities for wind, hydropower, of course, hydrogen fuel economy offer some very interesting prospects for the future as well as our clean coal technologies. And one among the number of exciting projects and activities that we as a nation are investing in is what’s called a future generation — we refer to it as “future gen” — coal fired power plants that … would be capable of doing from an environmental standpoint nearly zero emissions of all types. Now, it is going to take decades for us to not only build the plants but to operate it, to make sure it is operating and [it] moves off … research and development to actually full-scale implementation. But nonetheless great opportunities for progress.

ROLL CALL: What is your timetable for determining what your response to the Supreme Court decision will be?

JOHNSON: Expeditious. Expeditious. I think that it would not be appropriate for me to put a specific time. Certainly, I will have a sense of urgency. Having said that, I think that, I mean this is a major decision by the Supreme Court and I think that it is certainly good government and good public policy to evaluate that but do so in an expeditious way. So I intend to move forward expeditiously but also with a comprehensive evaluation.

ROLL CALL: Well, if you decide to regulate are there methods of regulation that are effective and also would not damage the economy? Are there preferred methods? Is a tax better than cap and trade for example?

JOHNSON: Again, there are a number of tools in the toolbox. Certainly carbon tax affords certain strengths. Cap and trade — here at EPA we are very familiar with cap-and-trade programs.

ROLL CALL: It worked on [sulfur dioxide], right?

JOHNSON: It works in the acid rain program. I signed regulations for dealing with [sulfur dioxide] and [nitrogen oxide] emissions and mercury emissions that use a cap-and-trade program for that. Now in those cases we are talking about one sector, and so there certainly are costs to set it up and to value and to allocate, you know, the percentage of what the contribution is in the beginning. And, of course, what is the cap. You have to identify what the mark is and is there a mark at the end. Do you have it phased in? You know, I’ve chosen, certainly in the [sulfur dioxide] and [nitrogen oxide] and mercury cases to have a two-step process so that in X number of years there is a cap and then some years after that a cap after that.

Principally from my perspective, certainly in the [sulfur dioxide] and [nitrogen oxide] and mercury decisions that I made, it was based upon where we thought the technologies would be. And, you know, clearly pushing the technologies, but also there is sort of the practical realism of you have to identify the technologies. You have to be able to detect those technologies. You have to then install those technologies and [ensure] those technologies work for all circumstances. And the case that I was talking about really worked for all coal types … and in other cases they don’t [work] as efficiently as others.

ROLL CALL: [California Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was in here last week …

JOHNSON: Yes.

ROLL CALL: … and he has applied for a waiver to impose limits [on greenhouse gas emissions] by I believe the beginning of 2009. What is your timetable for determining whether you are going to give him a waiver and what was that meeting like?

JOHNSON: Well, it was a very professional and cordial meeting. We have met on a number of occasions, this one with regard to the petition. What I told him is that we are very shortly within the coming weeks going to be starting the process of the petition and the first step in the process is that we issue a Federal Registry notice asking for comment. The agency or the government doesn’t take a position at this point and time in the process but asks for comment on the position and then once the comment process is over then we review all those comments and then make an informed decision.

ROLL CALL: But this year?

JOHNSON: I expect that it will be this year.

ROLL CALL: Does it make any sense for the United States to try to solve the global warming process on a state-by-state basis?

JOHNSON: Well, that is actually one of the questions we are asking ourselves and certainly I trust the Congress is asking itself. States in many parts of the environmental laws have the ability to set standards and be more aggressive, if you will, than the federal government. In other cases they are pre-empted from doing that because a patchwork of state regulations can for certain sectors of our economy be absolutely disastrous. So with regard to [carbon dioxide] emissions, that is one of the questions we are asking ourselves, as I said I trust Congress is asking itself as well.

ROLL CALL: Last question, who ultimately decides all of this? Do you decide it or does the White House decide it?

JOHNSON: Well, this decision rests with me as administrator. As I mentioned, I’ve been here with EPA now 26 years through multiple administrations, not as administrator of course, but through multiple administrations. And I think good government through all administrations have discussions and certainly I am and will continue to have discussions with my colleagues across the federal government, including the White House. But ultimately this is my decision as administrator.

ROLL CALL: The charge is made that ultimately all these decisions have been made on a political basis to the point where scientists have been inhibited in stating their own judgments even within the EPA because of political considerations dictated by the White House or somewhere else. What do you say about that?

JOHNSON: Well, that is not my experience. I am uniquely positioned and qualified being the first scientist to ever head up the Environmental Protection Agency, that has not been my experience as a scientist or as a senior manager here and it is certainly not my experience as administrator.