Whitman: On U.S. Environmental and Energy Policy for the Future

Former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman says the next president needs to focus on providing environmental leadership, and must include a new focus on climate change and water infrastructure.

October 30, 2007

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says the next president of the United States should focus environmental policy on addressing climate change, water scarcity, and infrastructure. “It’s hard to separate them because there are separate issues dealing with water, but water is also impacted by climate change,” notes Whitman, a member of CFR’s board of directors. She says federal legislation on climate change is unlikely to happen during the current administration, due in large part to divisions in Congress. Whitman also says that more leadership “from the top” will be needed to address “legitimate concerns” on increasing the amount of nuclear power in the country, which will be needed both to address future U.S. energy needs and climate change.

The field of presidential candidates is pretty big at the moment. What do you think the environmental policies of the next president should look like generally?

Well, there are two major issues we have got to deal with that will take real leadership from the top. One is obviously climate change and that would argue for the next president to provide the leadership to get a cap on carbon. You need to have the structure that really makes investment worthwhile. We need to do a lot more on renewables but they are only 2.5 percent of the total portfolio of the energy—that’s excluding hydro, which is about 7 percent—but that’s really fully built out. There isn’t much more you can do there. Even if you double or triple, which would put a real strain on renewables, it’s not going to meet [the] 40 percent increase in demand by 2030. And we’ve got to look at nuclear. If we are going to meet that projected base increase, we’re going to need between thirty-five and forty new nuclear facilities by 2030, and that is going to be really hard to accomplish.

The other big issue, and perhaps more immediate that doesn’t get talked about, is water: quantity and quality. Part of the issue that we are going to be dealing with does come from climate change and does come from the increased severity of drought and floods and things, but we also have an aging [water] infrastructure that is at a point that the last estimates I saw were anywhere between half a billion and a trillion dollars to replace. And that’s not something that any one area of the government or the private sector can handle on their own and it’s going to take some leadership to talk about. Water is a scarce commodity and it is a basis of life; you have to have water to survive. We may not be losing a lot because you have the ice caps that are melting, but we are not making any more, and we have to start to understand that. We don’t have the time to waste and to lose. One of the biggest sources of pollution in our waterways today comes from sanitary sewer and combined sewer overflows, and part of that is because of the aging infrastructure.

What’s the biggest environmental challenge facing the United States? Is it climate change, water, or is it something else?

It’s a combination of the two. It’s hard to separate them because there are separate issues dealing with water, but water is also impacted by climate change. However, the rate of impact from climate change is heating up dramatically. It’s not still at the state [where] I would put water as a coequal to climate change. Whatever we do in the next decade is not going to have an immediate impact on climate change. We can start to have an immediate impact on water, at least on the loss we get from leaking pipes and things, and educating people on the use of water, and what [it] really costs.

Are there any ideas out there that you think are really good or innovative that you’ve seen or not seen come out of Congress? Some of the candidates are members of Congress.

Congress hasn’t really taken up these issues in a meaningful way. Part of that problem is that we are so focused on the political now. Every policy issue is looked at through that political prism; what’s going to give me an advantage in the next election, not what makes the best policy sense. That is enormously damaging to the political process we have and that’s another area where you just have to have leadership. It’s going to take someone who’s going to stand up and say, “We’ve got to discuss this subject from a logical point of view not from an emotional point of view. We’ve got to do what really makes sense for the American people.” I haven’t seen that coming out of any of them right now.

Do you think there is a role for the federal government on this issue or should it just be left to the states, some of which have been quite aggressive in this area?

It’s not unusual for states to get ahead of the federal government, it has happened forever. I suspect were there to be a federal cap, whether it be cap and trade or a carbon tax, they [would] allow that to become their standard because they won’t want to be so economically uncompetitive that they can’t attract business because their standards are so onerous. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter who’s elected president or which party controls Congress, we will have a carbon-constrained economy going forward. You can’t have a patchwork quilt, like you do today, about forty different standards between various states and cities that have enacted different measures to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why you had the business committee coming to the president last year right before the State of the Union, standing there right by environmentalists saying “Regulate us,” which is a very unusual thing to happen.

The kind of the bill that could get through and make a difference [is one] understanding you’ve got to allow for economic growth. It’s fine to say you want to be secure on this, but, as the European Union is finding, it’s easier said than done.

Do you think any of these bills have any chance of making it into law with the current administration or do you think we will really have to wait until the next president?

We will wait until the next president, but it won’t all be because of this administration. If they gave the president a reasonable bill, he might sign it, but neither side really wants to truly solve this problem. They feel that this will be an issue for the presidential campaign. It’s just like the immigration issue. They could have solved the immigration issue. We had two bills a year ago, a Senate and a House bill, [but] they didn’t even really try to conference it, because they saw it was a good political issue in the campaign cycle. They are starting to see that climate change offers them that kind of opportunity, which is really detrimental.

There is always tension between energy policy and environmental policy especially when it comes to fossil-fuel use and nuclear power. How do you find the right balance between good energy policy and good environmental policy?

It’s going to be a combination. There isn’t any magic bullet; there is no one source that’s going to solve the problem. I’ve got to preface this by saying I believe in nuclear power, because it’s the only base power source that does not emit any greenhouse gases or any of the regulated pollutants. One environmentalist said, “If you’re worried about asthma and you’re concerned about climate change, then you’ve got to start thinking about nuclear.” It’s going to take leadership from the top, explaining, going through the issues because there are legitimate concerns that people raise.

We have learned from the mistakes that we made in the Industrial Age and we don’t want to see those recreated around the world, because guess what? That impacts us too. Mother Nature hasn’t figured out geopolitical boundaries and doesn’t really care all that much.

It’s going to be a combination, it’s going to be more renewables. People are going to demand to have reliable, affordable, safe energy coming into their homes. And we all have now everything from extra computers and our iPods to our electric toothbrushes all of which require power. Nobody is willing to give that all up.

Where do you see the future of coal going? Some environmentalists say that we should ditch coal all together; do you think that’s feasible?

No. It’s 52 percent of our power. It sounds great, but what are you going to do for power? Everyone is not going to live in a tepee, it’s just not going to happen. That’s what frustrates me sometimes with the environmentalists. Ultimately maybe one hundred or two hundred years from now geothermal can take the place of coal. In the interim you will have time to figure out how to support the people whose livelihood depends on this.

On carbon sequestration, how do we make coal cleaner, faster, and cheaper so that we get those technologies to other countries, [like China and India]?

Once again, I am more biased. I’d like to get China and India to do more with nuclear. They are doing nuclear, but China has a new coal-fired facility almost every week, and they are starting to pay the price. That’s something where the economics are pushing them because they are starting to see that there are businesses that are refusing to locate headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai because of air quality. It will be very interesting to see what happens next year with the Olympics.

Do you have any sense why they are not? China has been a nuclear power for some time.

Coal is cheap and it’s available. They are doing more nuclear, but due to their rate of growth, they are going for what’s least expensive to build. Once it’s online, on a per kilowatt basis, nuclear is actually less. It’s the initial cost. Since the United States got out of the business of nuclear in the 1970s, just the physical manufacturing of the various components of the reactor got situated in [very] few places. In fact, one major part of a nuclear reactor is only manufactured at one plant in Japan for the moment. Every country that wants to put on more nuclear has to get in line at that one factory and that really slows down the process. We’ll want to have our own ability to produce these parts. But right now that’s a constraining issue, and that’s another reason that China is going the way it is.

We have learned from the mistakes that we made in the Industrial Age and we don’t want to see those recreated around the world, because guess what? That impacts us too. Mother Nature hasn’t figured out geopolitical boundaries and doesn’t really care all that much. What you saw come out when the president had his discussion about climate change, a lot of people were denigrating it because they didn’t see an overarching worldwide commitment. I don’t think that’s going to happen; I just don’t see China and India willing to bind themselves to a Kyoto [Protocol]-like process.

You may see regional or individual targets set by countries. For the developing countries, I would see an intensity target set, such as what the president has called for in this country. That allows for economic growth, just not with the same commensurate amount of greenhouse gas emissions while you’re growing the economy. For the developed countries I would think it should be an absolute target because we’ve already done the polluting and we need to clean up our mess.

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