Gina McCarthy talks carbon, climate and methane with EDF

Sam Parry

71,000 EDF members and activists joined EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy Wednesday night for a live telephone town hall meeting with EDF president Fred Krupp, discussing topics ranging from carbon pollution standards to natural gas to the importance of taking your kids outside to play.

Fueled by incisive questions from our incredibly well-informed members, the town hall turned out to be a rich and entertaining experience – not just two wonks talking environmental policy. For someone with a sterling reputation as a non-partisan policy expert, Gina McCarthy also has the political skills and endearing warmth of a big city mayor. She once said, in her thick Dorchester, Massachusetts accent, that there was “nothing cooler” than getting to yell, “Play ball!” at a Red Sox game. A different career choice earlier in life and she’d be riding snow plows and hugging her constituents instead of spending her days working on behalf of public health and a stable climate.

The event took place fewer than 24 hours after President Obama’s State of the Union address, and gave the Administrator the chance to expand on the President’s environmental and energy agenda for the coming year. In the speech, the President highlighted his 2013 commitment to put the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, a responsibility that falls to Administrator McCarthy and her staff. Given that power plants are the No. 1 source of climate pollution in the U.S. —and that these rules are already under attack — it was inspiring to hear her talk about this historic action.

McCarthy said her agency plans to unveil rules that are “flexible enough” to allow each state to adopt carbon reduction strategies that meet their needs. She explained that carbon pollution limits are part of “transitioning the energy world” by encouraging power producers to move toward less polluting technologies and renewable energy. She sees EPA’s role as helping to “make that transition happen more quickly” while ensuring that our electric power system is affordable and reliable.

The Administrator also warned of significant obstacles ahead. She said “those who want to confuse the issue” will be pushing hard to undermine these rules, and that we will again see “climate denial rear its head.” She asked EDF members to fight back by talking about the issue with their neighbors and submitting comments as part of the EPA rulemaking process. Winning, she said, is “all about the grassroots.”

Listen to our tele-town hall with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

McCarthy said the Obama Administration refuses to “sit around and wait” while Congress refuses to act on climate change. But it was also clear she and the President see executive actions as only a first step. She called climate change a “global problem that needs a global solution.”

McCarthy is particularly passionate about the health impacts of climate change, saying “people don’t realize [it] is the biggest challenge we face from a public health point of view,” pointing to high asthma rates. She described how warmer temperatures lead to more ozone, which causes more frequent and severe asthma attacks.

Administrator McCarthy also talked about natural gas and methane pollution (methane, the main component of natural gas is a greenhouse gas more than 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timespan). After Fred Krupp noted that the President recently told The New Yorker magazine that failing to handle our natural gas boom correctly would create a “profound” methane pollution problem, McCarthy said the President had ordered her and other environmental officials to develop a “methane strategy.” She noted that the EPA has already issued new rules on so-called “green completions”—a way to capture methane emissions from natural gas wells at the end of the hydraulic fracturing process—but “that’s not where we’re going to stop.” She said EPA would also be looking at the issue of natural gas that leaks from oil wells. McCarthy called methane “an intense pollutant…we need to get at.”

It was clear from the discussion that McCarthy is determined to carry out her mandate under the Clean Air Act to limit pollution that harms the climate. It also sounded as if – for both McCarthy and the President – it is an issue about which they have strong personal feeling as parents. Perhaps her most passionate moment was a call for other parents to get their kids to play outside, introduce them to the natural world, and create the next generation of environmentalists.

Toward the end of the call, one EDF member called McCarthy a “feather in the nation’s cap” because of her expertise, political savvy and down to Earth manner. And she made clear that the feeling was mutual, saying, “Without groups like EDF, our ability to really move our mission forward would simply not be as possible as it is today. And it’s not me who recognizes it; the President himself clearly knows that.” Thanks to the deep engagement of EDF members, and the leadership of public officials like Gina McCarthy, America has the opportunity to win historic environmental victories in 2014. For the tens of thousands who dialed in Wednesday night, that was an inspiring thing to realize: activists really can make a difference. We honestly can’t do it without you.

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