Western Wire

Prospects of the “Green New Deal” passing Congress comes down to voter intensity and the level of new regulations imposed, according to leading environmental reporters at a forum organized by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and hosted at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“The real question is voter intensity on this issue,” said Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. “While there has been a broad consensus among Americans for years that there is support, for example, for some kind of action to curb greenhouse gases, it has always ranked as an extremely low priority among voters and it’s been rarely discussed by politicians.”

Eilperin explained that while there has been and uptick of discussion among House Democrats, voters do not appear to be following yet, given the opportunity to support clearly defined policies like carbon taxes.

She spoke at SEJ’s 2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy and Environment, which also featured reporters from The New York Times, PoliticoAssociated Press, E&E News, and The Guardian.

“There’s early indications that some of these climate impacts are affecting how people view climate change, how it’s affecting their lives. That said, in Washington State, which had a carbon tax proposal of just $10 a ton, where the Governor, Jay Inslee, put a huge amount of effort on it, this is a place that had been devastated by wildfires, and had terrible air quality—they lost by a wide margin,” Eilperin said. “And so I think the real question is, what would it take to both increase voter intensity and get people to actually support the often expensive in the short-term policies that would lead to long-term reductions.”

Politico’s Pradnya “PJ” Joshi Pradnya joined Eilperin in saying that the “Green New Deal” being championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) could gain traction if constituencies like farmers increase awareness and it does not involve too many additional regulations. Eilperin pointed out the issue can increase voter intensity and voters can get past the expense of short-term policies to effect change.

SEJ Board of Directors member Jeff Burnside led the recent forum.

According to Burnside, in 2019 the media industry will evolve to the point that all journalists will move into energy and environment-related reporting as the issues are poised to sweep newsrooms across the country in one form or another, according to a group of national energy journalists.

“The news coverage this year in energy and environmental stories has expanded beyond its regular domain,” Burnside said. “All reporters, whether or not they realize it, whether or not their editors realize it, are covering energy.”

2019 will be a big year, with stories like legal disputes in climate liability cases, children’s climate cases, Clean Power Plan, and National monument legal fights. Environmental regulatory coverage will focus on the rollback of auto-emission standards and water quality. Outside the Washington, D.C. Beltway news will focus on hydraulic fracturing, Arctic drilling and wildlife, and finally, coverage around technological innovations will include the renewables ‘revolution.’

The event featured Emily Holden from The Guardian asking and Bill Wehrum, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation a series of questions in a mini-interview, covering a range of agency-related regulatory topics, from carbon emissions to the replacement of the Clean Power Plan.

“I think reducing carbon emissions is important, and it’s a priority for us, but it’s one of many priorities for us,” Wehrum said. “So what we show in our analysis is ACE [Affordable Clean Energy rule], in conjunction with the fracking revolution and abundant natural gas and cheap natural gas and the seismic shift we’ve seen in the power sector away from coal and into gas and away from fossil to a degree and to renewables,” said Wehrum. “You know, American ingenuity and the markets and capitalism work and has resulted in substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, because that is the smart economic thing to do.”

“We believe it is a real success story,” he added.

Wehrum defended his previous work representing oil and gas trades. “Ultimately, the reason why I decided to throw my hat in the ring, and again, I feel privileged that it actually got through the process, is I think it’s important for people who understand the issues, understand the law, who understand the technology and the science to be in jobs like this,” he said.

Eric Lipton from the New York Times, picking up on the previous interview, added, “Love it or hate it, the EPA is in the midst of one of the most radical course corrections in its history – but we all know that.”

“The first two years, I think, of the Trump administration’s tenure has actually been an incredibly sloppy two years, and that’s sort of objectively speaking,” Lipton said.

Lipton said former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s personal issues somewhat limited the effectiveness of the changes under the Trump administration, but new leadership, under Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler appears headed in a different direction.

“Wheeler has already shown that he’s a much more disciplined, rigorous leader, and he’s going about things in a more careful, constructive, agree-or-disagree-with-him way,” he added. Wehrum is also that camp, Lipton added.

“This is the year they’ve got to remake the rules,” Lipton concluded, pointing to EPA rulemaking on ACE, Waters of the United States, car emissions, and methane. “It’s make or break time.”

Lipton said the “environment is not getting worse,” but the pace of improvement had slowed.

Ellen Gilmer from E&E News said that litigation on any number of fronts would proceed but would not likely be resolved by the end of the current administration. Expect a long process, she concluded.

Joshi said that “Climate change, environmental policy, energy policy touches so many different beats” that former agricultural beats in smaller markets have turned into climate beats thanks to extreme weather events.

Gilmer added that the regulatory reform of the first two years that some in the media had characterized as “sloppy” did not appear to be the case with the second round of agency leadership, most notably at EPA and the Department of the Interior.

“Most of what the agencies are doing is a little bit more careful, a little bit more thought out – you have people like Bill Wehrum, Andy Wheeler, David Bernhardt who are leading these agencies who are not getting into the kind of ethical issues or distractions that that their predecessors were,” Gilmer said.

Other success comes from a shift in mindset at the agencies, to work with companies ahead of time rather than penalize them afterwards.

Lipton added that one area seeing continuous improvement were massive declines in SO2 (sulfur dioxide) from electricity generation and NOx (nitrogen oxide), produced by burning fuels for transportation.

“SO2 and NOx continue to go down at a really rapid pace in the United States,” Lipton said as coal generation shifts to natural gas and renewables.