Environmental and business groups want to see whether President Obama's pick to head the Council on Environmental Quality will get tough on how federal agencies evaluate the climate change impact of proposed infrastructure projects.
At issue is a draft guidance that has been sitting in the Council on Environmental Quality's office since February 2010. While it's not a regulation, the guidance would outline the process by which federal agencies assess the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from projects under the National Environmental Policy Act. Most agencies already do such analyses, but their interpretations vary because they're based largely on existing case law rather than a formal procedure.
Environmental groups want the CEQ to require federal agencies to consider the cumulative emissions effect of infrastructure projects. They have pointed to a battle over proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
The Army Corps of Engineers says it will assess the greenhouse gas impact of the three terminals individually and only of the facilities themselves. But green groups want the assessment done on a lifecycle basis — which would include the eventual emissions from burning the coal overseas — and cumulatively, accounting for the emissions profile of all three terminals that would come online.
The CEQ guidance "needs to make clear that the full swath of indirect and cumulative impacts needs to be addressed, and needs to be addressed in a way that it is specific to that project and the projects around it," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation.
The draft guidance doesn't call for a cumulative assessment. But the addition of John Podesta to Obama's team of advisers has some thinking he will insist on installing a battle-tested official to replace outgoing Chairwoman Nancy Sutley, which could mean more aggressive action from CEQ.
"[W]e would not rule out that Sutley’s successor at CEQ could, at some point thereafter, issue final guidance that retains some or all of the February 2010 memorandum’s original intent," said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners LLC, who added that the political sensitivity of the topic might mean the guidance gets finalized after the 2014 elections.
Sutley, who departs next month, said Thursday at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing that the council is "working on revising" the draft guidance, but there is "no date certain yet."
Podesta, a Democratic strategist who was former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and the founder of left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress, was brought on with an emphasis on climate change and executive actions. CEQ, which had been an active body under Clinton and former President George W. Bush, could be due for a resurgence.
"This is part of this whole huge enterprise which John Podesta has been brought in to pull together," said Dan Kish, senior vice president of policy with the conservative think tank the Institute for Energy Research. "The long and short of it is, this is a huge deal."
That worries some business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Republicans who say an expanded scope for greenhouse gas reviews would raise the bar for approving infrastructure projects. Timed with the sweeping interagency review of energy infrastructure Obama called for earlier this month -- due for completion on Jan. 31, 2015-- Book reasoned that review could be used to justify finalizing the guidance.
"Our feeling is that the draft would be a problem. The impact would go well beyond just energy. Assessing exported [greenhouse gases] for things like coal would place us on a slippery slope," said Matt Letourneau, a spokesman with the Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has argued that a cumulative accounting of greenhouse gas emissions would make it more difficult to export coal, automobiles and other products.
"It sounds like the White House is doubling down on an agenda that is destroying jobs and driving up energy prices," Barrasso spokeswoman Emily Schillinger said of Sutley's comments.
The CEQ has maintained that the draft guidance is not a regulation. No rules will come from it, and the CEQ, which is not a regulatory agency, will not begin to penalize anyone based on the greenhouse gas emissions emitted.
Murphy said that federal agencies' obligation to review the impact of greenhouse gas emissions of projects under the National Environmental Policy Act is "clear," adding, "It's not, as I think some Republicans would reply, adding some new layer of bureaucracy."