Former EPA senior policy counsel Sussman discusses agency’s actions on emissions standards

Source: Monica Trauzzi, E&E • Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2013

How willing is U.S. EPA to compromise with industry on its power plant emissions standards? During today’s OnPoint, Robert Sussman, the former senior policy adviser at EPA, gives his take on the key hurdles facing the agency as it tries to meet President Obama’s aggressive timeline for new and existing power plant emissions standards. Sussman, who departed the agency earlier this month, also discusses how the holdup of Gina McCarthy’s confirmation as administrator has affected operations and slowed the progress of agency projects.
Click here to watch today’s OnPoint.Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I’m Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bob Sussman. Bob just left EPA this month after serving for the last four years as senior policy counsel. Bob, it’s great to have you here again.Bob Sussman: Pleasure to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Bob, having just left EPA, you have the freshest of perspectives on just exactly what’s happening at the agency. The president has established a very aggressive timeline for the agency to roll out a mission standard for new and existing power plants. What have you identified as the key hurdles standing in the way of the agency being able to hit those targets?

Bob Sussman: Well, the schedule is an ambitious one, but I think it’s achievable. EPA has done a lot of work on this issue so it’s not starting at ground zero. And I think if Gina McCarthy is confirmed today [Tuesday], as we hope, EPA will be able to hit the ground running. That said, these are tough deadlines, EPA is going to have to be very disciplined, the agency is going to need a lot of cooperation from the White House. It’s going to need to quickly engage with stakeholders, particularly with the states who are very important in this process, and get their input. So it will be tough but it is doable.

Monica Trauzzi: What are they doing, or what should they be doing down the line to manage some of the legal challenges?

Bob Sussman: Well, the legal challenges are there. There’s no question about it. I think that lawyers at EPA and the Department of Justice have scrubbed the Clean Air Act pretty hard, and I think they know where the potential pitfalls and risks are. What I think is very important is that EPA not be overly cautious because of concern about legal risk, because it’s very easy, I think, to end up with a standard, a very modest scope, if one decides to avoid all legal risk here, and that would really be a missed opportunity if that’s what we ended up with.

Monica Trauzzi: When did the agency realize that it needed to separate sources, natural gas and coal, in the regulation for new sources? Because initially they were combined, now we believe that the rule that’s been sent over to the White House separates those sources.

Bob Sussman: Right, I don’t want to comment on the rule that’s been sent over to OMB, we’ll just have to see what emerges at the end of that process. I will say that EPA is always re-examining its positions in light of comments and further analysis. There was a lot of comment on the proposed new source standard for greenhouse gases, and a good portion of that comment focused on the legal implications of a combined category for coal and natural gas plants. So I don’t think it’s surprising that EPA would be considering that issue and asking whether it wants to stand its ground or move in a different direction.

Monica Trauzzi: And the industry certainly weighed in on that issue. What is the tone within the agency towards industry, and how much willingness is there to compromise with what industry is asking for on these regulations?

Bob Sussman: Well, industry is not monolithic, and states are not monolithic on greenhouse gas regulation. You can have different factions within the utility industry which have differing perspectives based on the type of generation that they have, and you can have different perspectives within states. For example, there are a number of states that are way ahead of the curve on regulating greenhouse gases, like California and the northeastern states. I think the challenge here is to develop a regulation which achieves significant reductions in greenhouse gases, because that is really what we need at this stage of the game, but does it in a way which is fair to the different states and which also is flexible and gives the states the ability to decide how they want to comply. So I am hoping that in the outreach that I know is going to occur here to industry and the states, that EPA signal that it’s open to a great deal of flexibility providing we can end up with a regulation at the end of the day which takes a big bite out of prevailing greenhouse gas emissions.

Monica Trauzzi: Switching gears, what impact has the holdup on Gina McCarthy’s nomination confirmation had on operations within the agency, and what impact is it having on these talks on the air regulations?

Bob Sussman: Well, the delay in Gina’s nomination has been unfortunate and has not been helpful to the agency. Bob Perciasepe is an outstanding guy but he’s only the acting administrator, so therefore a lot of issues are waiting for Gina. And as a result of that, there hasn’t been the level of activity within the agency, the level of closure on key issues that I think all of us would want. I’m hoping that Gina is going to be confirmed later today [Tuesday]. If she is, I think you’re going to see some real forward movement at EPA.

Monica Trauzzi: Transparency has come up in her confirmation process. What are your thoughts on those issues that we’ve seen on transparency?

Bob Sussman: Well, I think that EPA has really gotten a bum rap from Senator Vitter and others who have raised that issue. I don’t think at the end of the day there really is much evidence that EPA has been nontransparent. I think a lot of the lines of attack that were pursued by Senator Vitter and others turned out to be dead ends, and I think generally it’s really unfortunate that the confirmation process focused on a largely contrived issue of transparency instead of environmental policy and the substance of the decisions that EPA makes.

Monica Trauzzi: So personal question, I’m sure the offers are lining up, what’s next for you?

Bob Sussman: Well, I’d like to work on issues that are really interesting and important to me, and there are quite a few of them. I’m looking for opportunities to do meaningful public policy work, and I know those opportunities are out there so I expect to be pretty busy.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we’re going to end it right there. Excited to see what comes next. Thank you for coming on the show.

Bob Sussman: Sure, sure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We’ll see you back here tomorrow.