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Sam Finegold
President of the NRDC, Frances Beinecke

President of the NRDC, Frances Beinecke

The HPR sat down with President of the NRDC Frances Beinecke to discuss some of the biggest issues facing the climate and energy production in the United States.

Harvard Political Review: What are NRDC’s biggest legislative priorities? Why is curbing pollution from power plants such a prominent goal that you mentioned on your blog?

Frances Beinecke: Our number one institutional focus is climate change. We’re very focused on mitigation. This requires reducing emissions everywhere we can find it.

In the president’s first term, there was a major breakthrough in automobile emissions when we adopted the standard of 54.5 miles per gallon. That addressed one of the major sources of pollution: cars. The other major source is power plants. We’ve been focused for a number of years on how to get to the heart of the problem, which is coal-fired power plants. We worked very hard three years ago in 2009 on the ACES Bill, which got through the House but not the Senate. Since, we’ve been looking for other ways to address this source and help the US reach the 17 percent reduction the president promised in Copehagen.

The EPA has the power to regulate air pollution through the Clean Air Act.  Congress has become less likely to pass legislation on the issue, but the climate impacts are happening now.  That’s why we’re focusing on getting the EPA and the White House to move in that direction. That authority is also verified by the Supreme Court. It’s been through judicial review, so we know that the president and the EPA have the authority to do this.

We think the president is behind this measure, because President Obama commented this week in the State of the Union that he plans to direct his cabinet to reduce pollution. The NRDC has a public proposal which basically documents how you can use Clean Air Act authority to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 25 percent by 2020 and reduced carbon emissions in the entire country by 10 percent.

This isn’t easy because by doing this you’re going toe-to-toe with utilities and the coal power.

HPR: What do you think about the reintroduction of carbon markets?

FB: We do have carbon markets: the northeast carbon market and California’s. And California is the eight largest economy in the world. That’s a very significant carbon market that already exists. There are also significant markets in Canada and Europe. And I believe China is about to create one.

Carbon markets are on the move. What the United States doesn’t have is national legislation that would create a carbon market. That starts the conversation of what the type of market would be.  Tax or carbon trade? I think it’s too early to tell what it’s going to be.

But there is more and more conversation going on in Congress about a carbon-neutral tax program. Some of the money of that tax would go back to the government, some to the consumer, and some to R&D.  This additional revenue is a big deal for the country right now, and is one of the things that makes this tax attractive.

HPR: What is the NRDC’s position on fracking?

FB: There is a huge natural gas boom going on in the country right now. There is more natural gas then anyone would have imagined. There are places that should not be drilled. It’s not necessary to completely industrialize the American landscape.

Our position is that drilling shouldn’t be expanded until there are adequate safeguards put in place both at the state and federal level that protect the public. There is fracking going on in over 30 states with a patchwork quilt of regulations.  There is no uniformity, and there is no assurance that these rules are designed to protect the public.

There is no other environmental issue that has caught the public’s attention like fracking. There is little transparency as to what chemicals the public is being exposed to. You go to Pennsylvania, and people aren’t sure if their water has been contaminated. People don’t even have the ability to control drilling on their own property because of the split estate between surface and sub-surface water rights. It’s the full boom-town mentality and the government isn’t protecting people.

The other element is that we want to use renewables, but there is a huge abundance of gas that is diverting people from producing these renewables. There is also a lot of methane that can be released into the atmosphere, and methane is a very aggressive greenhouse gas.

HPR: Who is your pick for Secretary of Energy?

FB: We don’t have one, in part because we don’t have a voice in the choice.  But I was on the panel with Secretary of Energy Chu.  He was incredibly passionate about investing in renewables and making buildings more efficient. We want someone in the role who was as strong an advocate as he was. We want whoever is in that role to be as passionate as he was.