In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Susan Tierney, senior advisor at the Analysis Group and chair of RFF's Board of Directors, and Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president, director, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy and National Security Program. Tierney and Ladislaw recount major news and discern key trends from the past year in the environmental policymaking world. They see the Green New Deal, the California waiver, and ongoing disparities between federal and state-level regulations on energy issues as topics with continuing relevance, looking forward to 2020.
Listen to the Podcast
Top of the Stack
- “Time to move away from old precedents in FERC pipeline reviews” by Susan Tierney
- “FERC’s Certification of New Interstate Natural Gas Facilities” by Susan Tierney
- Blowout by Rachel Maddow
- The River by Peter Heller
- “Made in China: 2025 and the Future of American Industry” by Marco Rubio
- “Perspectives on the Green New Deal” with Leah Stokes and Jerry Taylor
- Riders in the Sky
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources For The Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week we've reviewed 2019 in environmental and energy policy with two amazing guests: Susan Tierney, senior advisor at the Analysis Group and Chair of the Board at RFF, and Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president, director, and senior fellow at The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy and National Security Program. I'll ask Sue and Sarah what they consider as the most interesting policy developments over the course of the year at the federal and state level when it comes to environmental and energy policy. We'll touch on everything from vehicles to electricity to interstate natural gas pipelines and much more. Stay with us.
Okay. Sarah Ladislaw and Sue Tierney, two of the most interesting and smartest people in the world of energy and environment. We're so lucky to have you today on our sort of year end special episode of Resources Radio. Thank you so much for joining us.
Susan Tierney: So nice to be here. Thanks.
Sarah Ladislaw: Thanks, Daniel.
Daniel Raimi: So, we're going to just talk in a pretty open-ended way over the next 30 minutes or so about what the two of you found most interesting in the world of energy in the environment this year, 2019, but first I want to ask you both the same question that we always ask all of our guests. So maybe Sue, let's start with you. How did you get into the world of working on environmental and energy policy?
Susan Tierney: I grew up in Southern California and I wondered why you couldn't see the mountains during the summer time. And clearly the smog was a presence that was dominating in terms of outdoor activity and other things. And I love those mountains. So I was really interested in why that smog was there, why it came in the summer, what it had to do with, and of course, over time I learned it was about cars and sprawl, and of course, meteorological conditions. But that really set me on a path of trying to figure out what are the reasons why we have environmental pollution and what are the systems that create it and what are the human systems that can solve it.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. And Sarah, how about you?
Sarah Ladislaw: Yeah, so mine's a bit different. I grew up in New Hampshire, but that doesn't have much to do with how I ended up in energy. But I really started off with wanting fundamentally two things. One, to understand international relations better, which is what I went to school for. And then two, I've had a very strong public service/civil service kind of drive. And what I found in going through undergraduate and then graduate school is, I was looking around at different areas is that I don't sit with one topic very easily. And energy was a lens through which I could explore lots of really interesting public policy issues, global investment issues, cultural issues, development issues, security issues. It's really this great lens to explore intersections between the ways in which different parts of society or public policymakers versus the private sector intersect with one another. And then quite frankly issues like climate change came around, which spoke to that sort of civil service, or the need to do a greater public good kind of thing. And I was hooked. And so it's proven to be a really great career for people who don't sit still very well in one place.
Susan Tierney: Well, the world is a better place that you can't sit still because your work really does span all of those things so beautifully.
Sarah Ladislaw: Oh, thanks Sue. That's really nice. You say so.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Strong second over here. I'm not going to talk too much over the next 25, 30 minutes, but I do want to give a little bit of background before we kind of dive into our conversation. When I step back and think about 2019 in terms of energy and environmental policy, it's been a busy year as most years are. There's always lots of stuff going on. And so I think about different levels of activity. So at the federal level, we've mostly seen from the Trump administration efforts to roll back or streamline environmental protections in a variety of areas. There've been some efforts to weaken federal energy efficiency standards in a number of areas, efforts to provide more opportunities for fossil fuel development, particularly oil and gas, and maybe to a lesser extent coal. And then there have been some really interesting efforts to try to restrict the ability of state governments, particularly California, in their ability to impose more stringent rules than the federal government might otherwise adopt.
We've seen this in the issue of the waiver that we talked about a few weeks back with Emily Wimberger when my colleague Kristin Hayes interviewed her for the show. But at the same time there's all this other energy moving in the exact opposite direction. There are many states that have been setting really ambitious targets to reduce electricity sector CO2 emissions and in some cases economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions, aiming to get to zero or net-zero within the next 30 years, which is super ambitious. We've also seen some states, particularly Colorado and California, start imposing new restrictions on oil and gas development, which I of course follow closely because I've done all this work on fracking. And so that's kind of a new thing from my perspective, the idea that state governments are actually restricting their own ability to produce oil and natural gas.
And we've seen that in some states where there wasn't really much of an industry to start with like New York. But in states where there is a substantial industry like Colorado and California, I think that's kind of a new thing. And so there's a million different topics that we could dive into and I'm loath to pick any of them. So I'm going to make you two do it for me and I'm going to ask you about what you thought was the most interesting or what you thought some of the most interesting areas were in terms of environmental and energy policy. And I want to kind of just frame it by starting at the federal government level and maybe ask you first Sue: can you talk a little about maybe one or two of the most interesting federal energy or environmental policies that's been moving around this year?
Susan Tierney: Happily, thanks Daniel. And your lead-in was really terrific, and it actually is a perfect segue for the two things that I might mention that have been of interest to me at the federal level. One of them is what you just foreshadowed, which is the growing retrenchment of federal policy and a pullback on those air emission regulations. The fact that the California waiver, which has been an icon in the industry forever and has been a cherished element of transportation policy, certainly across many, many states. And that's really challenging. So the retrenchment I think of as really a widening gap between where federal policy is pushing these days. I say pushing because there's obviously many, many court disputes surrounding these issues, but there's just a widening gap between activities of the federal agencies that affect energy and environment and lots of other things.
There's a gap between the feds and state policies. There's a gap between civil society, really. We're seeing so much more interest in climate considerations. There's a widening gap between where businesses are making commitments on sustainability and certainly on climate. There's a widening gap of course on international relations with the Paris agreement, so it's stunning to see that gap continuing to grow, and that's not a good thing from my point of view. The second one is an interesting set of activities surrounding the Green New Deal proposal. Now I mention this not because I think that that proposal is realistic or practical or likely to be enacted. I think it is aspirational. I just don't think that many of the outcomes that are outlined in that proposal are doable on the timeframes that the Green New Deal aspires to. But I think it's been incredibly important from an agenda-setting point of view, from moving climate to a conversation that happens in lots of different settings and venues.
It connects the dots between economic activities and economic goals and objectives with things related to the reduction of impacts from greenhouse gas emissions and so forth. I think that's been a really interesting dynamic and I think that the Green New Deal idea has made its way into many, many corners of discussions around the country. So for that, I do think it's been a notable event this year, and I think I'll stop there.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Yeah, those are two super relevant points to get us started with us. Sarah, let me just kind of ask you the same question and ask you to lay out what you found most interesting and it also too maybe react to Sue's topics.
Sarah Ladislaw: So, maybe because I aspire to be like Sue Tierney in sort of insightful analysis and clarity of thought, I picked the same two… What I'll do is maybe respond to some of them, use the points that I had prepared to sort of respond to what Sue thought, and then maybe add a couple other things that I think were a little different from that on the fly.
I will say I think that on the first point about the gap between federal and state level regulation, I picked out specifically the safer affordable fuel efficient safe vehicle roll, which is particularly the Trump administration's proposal to roll back vehicle efficiency standards. I think that was actually first put out in 2018 so I felt like I was cheating a little bit to pick it. But obviously there have been just some really tremendous developments on that front in terms of both the risks that we've seen in the auto manufacturers’ community, the tactics that are being used both by the state of California in suing the federal government with 22 other states, but then the federal government opening a Department of Justice investigation against the companies that have worked with California to try and find a compromise position.
I mean, I think what is interesting about all this—and then I'm sorry, then to back up, to the sort of rumored potential compromise finalized bill on vehicle efficiency that the Trump administration will ultimately put forward—I think what's really been interesting in this dynamic is that it is showing a really core question in our system of energy federalism, which is: are the states pushing the federal government, and does the federal government learn from innovation at the state level? Or are the states finally starting to move so much faster than the federal government is able to underpin that through its own regulatory structures that we're setting ourselves up in the coming years for a real problem, right? Where sort of derived authorities from the states will challenge the preconceived notions of what federal regulation is able to sort of definitively say: “Hey, this is what the policy is going to be.”
And so I think it sort of signifies a bigger challenge that we're seeing, whether it's in coal cell power markets or on cross-state natural gas pipelines, a whole bunch of issues where it's just a good question as to who's leading here and how will that dynamic play out over time. I thought that that is clearly has to be one of the more consequential dynamics. And quite frankly, how is it going to break out into even bigger fights between the states and the federal government as a consequence of not being able to resolve some of these issues?
On the Green New Deal, I agree with Sue a lot. I think that the way I've been thinking about it is this is very akin to, as analysts, when people try to ask why is the Trump administration rolling back particular pieces of regulation, is it because they don't like particular pieces of regulation or is it because in general they have a frame about the idea of smaller government, less regulation generally being the right recipe for broader economic growth in the United States? The Green New Deal is becoming a construct like that for Democrats, right? Which is if you aren't taking care of a bunch of ills in capitalism, whether it's doing away with it entirely on the extreme or kind of figuring out a new path forward that remedies different elements of inequality and environmental injustice, then you're not hitting the right bar.
And so while the specific provisions of a Green New Deal might not be the direction we have to go in, certainly it's becoming a frame like that that all Democrats have to be able to at least put their proposals in the context of or address in some way. And so, when the question is, what are the consequential things happening, I think even though neither of those things have resulted in policy, at the end of the day, they certainly are setting up our sort of future battles.
Susan Tierney: Well Sarah, that was brilliant, of course. I really liked especially the way that you talked about the challenges between the feds and the states. And I've really observed this in the past year with regard to the gas pipeline question.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has this very, very strong authority to approve interstate pipelines. And the FERC has just recently decided that it's not really appropriate to look at or take into consideration state aspirations for their own energy goals. You look at the fact that recent pipeline decisions and approvals have decided not to look at carbon policies of states or even carbon emissions associated with the indirect use of gas.
And that is really setting up a continued huge fight going forward. Not just on the raw preemption question and how that plays out in terms of state's authority to issue federal environmental permits. But also just this question of: if states have already adopted a policy to reduce fossil use and checked the box on a pipeline approval, there's just really big questions about these inconsistencies, potential stranded costs, a variety of different things that are going to be ground zero in terms of really tough fights in the future.
Sarah Ladislaw: Yeah, no, I think that is one of the main questions. It was funny because when we had senators Murkowski and Manchin at CSIS not too long ago, we asked that question within the context of FERC not quite so specifically, but it really raises the question as to how much of this is going to get settled in a litigious structure that is so far cannot definitively answer these questions and how much of it requires some sort of policy guidance. And I think that's an area where we're going to need to explore further because clearly there's a lot of policy guidance coming from the state level. I mean there's lots of activity going on, but there isn't from the federal level, and there really isn't a very clear sign that we're going to get that in a concrete way, you know, even outside the areas where there’s FERC jurisdiction.
I don't really have a good line of sight on how that's going to evolve, but I do think something you said Sue, which is that the risk of stranded assets is probably part of the equation, right? I mean, if you're not able to reliably develop or build infrastructure, then that's kind of what ends up happening. And so it'll be interesting to see how politically the issue gets pushed to try and find some sort of policy resolution or how long we're going to kind of stay in this middle ground.
Susan Tierney: Exactly.
Daniel Raimi: Let me take that as a cue to move on to talk about policies at the state level and maybe explore what the two of you thought was most interesting or highlight a couple things that you thought were interesting.
Before we do that, I want to refer listeners to a report that Sue published last month from the Analysis Group. The title of the report is FERC’s Certification of New Interstate Natural Gas Facilities. That'll be a great resource for people to dive deeper on this topic. We'll have a link to it in the show notes of course, but let me transition now, and Sue, let me ask you to start again with just highlighting maybe one or two state government policies that you found particularly interesting that happened over the course of the year.
Susan Tierney: I'd be happy to, and thanks for that shout out from my recent report. That's very nice of you, Daniel. I think the theme that I will highlight here is a very all-encompassing one that is underway in many, many states and that's this push toward a one-two punch of decarbonizing the electric sector, and then using a low carbon electricity supply to attack carbon emissions from buildings, transportation, and a variety of other things. The electrification of all things energy is something of increasing interest to many states. I'm going to use the New York example as the leading edge on this. New York passed in June, I think it was 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, and among the many, many things it does is call for a full removal of carbon from the electricity sector by 2040, and a use of electricity to address carbon emissions from vehicles and from appliances and from buildings around the state.
It is extremely aggressive in terms of the set of goals and the timeframe that it lays out. It is a policy that the state has enacted that puts every state agency on notice of having accountability and responsibility to take carbon emissions into account in its activities. There is a leading role for many of the energy agencies along with the environmental agencies as part of this. So the New York state energy research and development administration has a key role in setting agendas for actions by many of the other agencies. And the set of tools that are anticipated will be needed is very large, very diverse. These are policy tools I'm talking about, and in some sense, not yet identified because I really see this as a state where every tool under the sun is going to have to be used if the state really is able to meet the goals that have been set out in the law.
I think this is something that is emblematic of a lot of pieces that other states are putting in place. Massachusetts has a Global Warming Solutions Act and has a famous act on carbon emissions reductions. Colorado has just enacted a climate approach. And so we see many states using this one-two punch of clean electricity and electrification as being an important strategy for addressing climate change. I think that for me is a big body of activity across the states, and states are looking at each other just to take ideas and to see where successes are landing around the country.
Sarah Ladislaw: Quite similarly I think, because we recently did this together, I think that one-two punch is a really great description of a category of activity going on in the states that will inform hopefully at some point federal policy I guess, but certainly is sort of driving the direction of what many different states are doing and thinking about.
I had a similar take on things, but I cut it a little bit differently. Which is, I do think the most interesting and probably least talked about phenomenon at the state level is the sort of emergence of these new clean energy standards, which is part of the strategies that Sue just talked about. And I think they're interesting for a few reasons. One: that a lot of them are aspirational and declaratory in nature. So by aspiration to have clean or carbon-free electricity generation by 2050 or 2040 depending on the different states exists in eight different states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico now.
And then, clearly a number of other legislators are considering doing things like this. And so I think it's been interesting to see because this is that next wave of what comes after renewable portfolio standards for all the good and ill of renewable portfolio standards based on how they're designed. They've just been a huge part of what's created renewable energy markets in the United States. So while it might not be as attractive as an economy-wide carbon tax for people who want to see bigger economy-wide drives towards reducing emissions, it is what we have, and what we have had.
So I do think it's interesting to see and to track what the one: how many other States will be able to put something like this in place and what are the reasons why they're doing it? And then two: a lot of design elements inside these policies that are yet to be determined. So, not a lot of detail around how they're going to be achieved. And so, whether or not these are complementary to some of the zero emissions credits that have been put in place to bolster nuclear power. What kind of carve-outs exist within the context of these policies. I think all of that is going to be pretty important in shaping the future for renewable or clean electricity going forward. I think it's really hard to not sort of highlight that as one of the more important and interesting things happening at the state level.
Quite similarly I would say back on that Green New Deal concept, right. Someone's got to put some details around what the Green New Deal is. And my colleague Lachlan Carey just put out something talking about what the new sort of federal legislative proposal was on public housing that is kind of one of the first things that we've seen on the federal side that kind of fleshed out the Green New Deal. But we have seen things at the state level. So several different states—New York, Maine, Illinois, California and some others—have their own version of what a Green New Deal is. And so I think, looking at what those are and how those get implemented to the extent that the sort of political saliency of the Green New Deal continues to resonate, what that actually means in practice is going to be pretty important.
I think tracking some of what's going on at the state level on that front is also an important thing to do as well. I think the last one that I wanted to flag is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which just had an announcement earlier this week about some of the RGGI [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] States getting involved in extension of a cap and trade program that would begin to start covering the transportation sector. I mean again, I think there's again pros and cons of this approach as well and questions about how transferable it will be to other places. But to the extent that RGGI has for a long time served as sort of guidepost or an example that people point to when they're thinking about what a cap and trade program looks like, how does one get started, how does it raise ambition or expand.
The Transportation Climate Initiative is another one of those initiatives that I think is important to watch for those same types of learnings. And we don't have a ton of examples of that, so I think that that's another important one to think about.
Susan Tierney: Your points are extremely insightful, Sarah, and harkening back to the first part of our conversation, it's really interesting to see the ways in which these state-by-state policy designs are occurring. You highlighted this. And the good news is that states are taking the reins, deciding their own destiny as best they can with the tools that they have available to them. But there's often this inattention to the next door state’s design of its policies. And the fact that RGGI and TCI have been approaching this in a multi-state way is great. The potential thing that people need to be really concerned about is once these state-by-state different policy designs are adopted in states, it becomes harder sometimes to find a harmonized federal solution because people get really attached to their way of doing things. And it's one of the reasons why I love the work that is done at RFF to think about those issues of leakage across state boundaries and looking for ways to harmonize both across policies, across sectors, but across states. And so there's a lot of really interesting analytic work to be done here as you indicated.
Sarah Ladislaw: Yeah, I completely agree. What's interesting is one of the things that we were looking at in our Energy in America project—which Daniel, you participated in over the last year—is some of these questions related to this. You're starting to see states realize that in order to drive some of their economic growth strategies, if they work alone, they kind of cannibalize on one another, particularly when it comes to like creating innovation clusters and other things like that. But if they, or quite frankly, even if you're doing hydrocarbons development, right, you kind of need to know how you're going to get your resources out of wherever you are if you're landlocked. And so, there is a lot that states are starting to kind of realize on some of these issues that they actually do have to coordinate a little bit.
And I actually wonder if we'll see much more of this, regional dynamics, where states are figuring out on the sort of energy policy side, particularly to the extent that it has a growth dimension or a jobs dimension or those types of things that… if they work across purposes, they actually may be ruining some of the potential for the entire region. Whereas if they work together then maybe they can achieve some of the economic growth potential goals for which they were sort of harnessing energy development. And I think that that's where it hasn't necessarily translated as into infrastructure, right? I mean, people are still fighting tooth and nail on infrastructure on very localized issues. But regionally, economic development is a really important way of looking at energy development stories in some of these places. And so, I'm sort of curious how much more kind of regional cooperation we'll see even before we see any kind of federal coordination. I think that's still kind of an open question for the coming year.
Daniel Raimi: Right, yeah, there are so many fascinating things to dig into and to like each one of these topics there. So many questions I want to explore, but we are pretty much at time already. And so I am going to move us on to our last question, which we affectionately call “Top of the Stack.” What's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack, something that you really enjoyed this year related to energy in the environment.
And I'll start with something that's a little tangential. It's a band that I just learned about even though I think they'd been around for like 40 years is a band called Riders In The Sky. So it's a cowboy band and they have all these songs about the old West. And so whenever I listened to them, I'm sort of reminded of the times that I've spent in West Texas traveling around the dusty springs and deserts, and there's lots of yodeling. There's lots of wonder and appreciation for the natural world in those songs. And my one-year-old really likes it. If you're not into Riders In The Sky, I would recommend it. It can be a little silly, but I think it's pretty great. How about you? Let's go in the same order. Sue, you first. What's at the top of your stack?
Susan Tierney: Well, there are actually two books at the top of my stack and I've just finished listening to both of them. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to have this microphone to tell you about two things. They couldn't be more different.
I'll start with the edgy one, which is Rachel Maddow's new book called Blowout, which is really about the oil and gas industry and Russia among many other things, but very, very interesting. And of course it always, as I said, is edgy with Rachel's tone and style. But it is a highly researched book and very, very intriguing. The second one is really different. It's a novel called The River by Peter Heller, and this is a story of two young men who go on a canoe trip in Northern Canada and find themselves stuck because of a wildfire that gets in their path. And it's really a beautifully written story about wilderness and human relations and the outdoors and risks, natural risks that occur, and then also about human survival. It's really beautiful.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, those sound great and Blowout, actually, I have that literally at the top of my stack as well. I am a couple chapters in, so I'll be interested to see where it goes. Sarah, how about you? What's at the top of your stack?
Sarah Ladislaw: In the spirit of the new year, I want to say I think two things that I find interesting and you went tangential so I get to do it too, Daniel. I guess that's how the rules go. Two pieces, one of somewhat policy-relevant work and then one sort of from the podcast, not podcast. I think, I guess it's watching a YouTube recording of a conversation that took place, that both of which I think are good.
The first is Marco Rubio put out a report called “China: 2025” that looks through the small business committee in the Senate that looks at economic competition related to the United States and China. And I find it fascinating because it is a description of Marco Rubio, a relatively conservative individual, quoting some fairly progressive-minded economists thinking about industrial competition and the fact that China is trying really hard to win in particular technologies and maybe we're not.
And I think this is going to be a really dominant theme in the next couple of years. I'm always shocked that people don't know about that report and some of the sort of things that are said there about the potential need for the United States to think about energy and other things in terms of industrial competition. I recommend that to people.
And then the podcast or sort of episode that I watched on YouTube was a debate or conversation that the Breakthrough Institute hosted between Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center and professor Leah Stokes in which they tried to have a really civil dialogue about things that they disagreed upon, particularly the Green New Deal and the political efficacy of it as a strategy. And right now in the end of the year, particularly with the political environment we're in, I think it's really nice to watch people who disagree with each other, try to talk to each other nicely and use sort of facts rather than volume to have that debate. And so I think that just in the interest of good civic hygiene, that's definitely something I'm also recommending to people these days.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's a wonderful recommendation and a really nice note to end on. And hopefully we can go into 2020 with a little bit more civility and kindness all around.
Sarah Ladislaw: I could vote for that.
Susan Tierney: Well you've set the tone for that with this podcast, so thank you very much, Daniel.
Sarah Ladislaw: That's right. Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: Thanks, Sue. Okay, great. So let's close it out. Once again, Sue Tierney and Sarah Ladislaw, thank you so much for joining us. So fascinating to hear your comments and thoughts about the year in energy in the environment. We really appreciate it.
Sarah Ladislaw: Thanks Daniel. So much fun.
Susan Tierney: Thank you. Happy new year.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources For the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources For the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.
Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Energy and National Security Program
Susan F. Tierney
Chair, RFF Board of Directors; Senior Advisor, Analysis Group Inc.