Jeff Holmstead was the Environmental Protection Agency's air chief under President George W. Bush from 2001-05.
But a lot has changed since then, he said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. The EPA office he once headed has become synonymous with the war on coal and federal overreach under President Obama. That's something that wasn't envisioned when the agency was established in 1970.
Holmstead is now one of the country's leading environmental policy lawyers and partner at the law firm Bracewell, where much of his time is spent advising on the effects of any number of EPA regulations that will keep the agency in court well into the next administration.
On the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of President Obama's climate agenda, he sees a Republican president rolling the regulation back quite easily, while doing the same for the Paris climate deal probably woudn't be worth the effort.
December's climate deal is more political theater than anything else, he notes. The government has been doing most of the actions the U.S. is required to take on greenhouse gas emissions since the 1990s, he says.
Regardless if the next president is Democrat or Republican, he thinks a close examination of the EPA's underlying authority should be made a priority.
Washington Examiner: How do you see the Republican Party on environmental issues since you were at the EPA? Have they changed or stayed the same?
Holmstead: Right now, on the politics of environmental issues and the EPA, I think for most Republicans, what you have is a reaction to the overreach of the Obama years. Just as an example, for many years going back to the beginning of the Clean Air Act, it didn't really matter too much if Republicans were in charge or if Democrats were in charge.
The permitting process was pretty routine, and pretty technical, and as long as you went through and did the things you were supposed to do, you would get a permit for whatever type of facility you were building.
The Obama folks very quickly made clear that they weren't going to allow any coal-fired power plants. They turned various levers to make sure that no one could build new coal-fired power plants. And that was kind of unique, to say by executive fiat, regardless of the process, "We aren't going to allow any new coal-fired power plants."
Another example is, most of the air quality standards — and there are six ambient air quality standards — have been in place since the early 1970s. And there was a consensus that other than ozone and fine particles, which have been kind of contentious, the others were kind of where they needed to be
But the Obama administration came in and very quickly put in place a much more stringent standard for [nitrogen oxides], a much more stringent standard for SO2 [sulfur dioxide], and those things cause lots of consternation.
The Clinton administration had reviewed it and said the right limits were in the right place. The science hadn't really changed, but the Obama administration came in and said, "We're in charge now, and we're going to make these much more stringent."
And then you had MATS [mercury and air toxics standards for power plants], which was very clearly an effort to use the law to close down as many coal-fired power plants as you could. And the biggest overreach of all is of course the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, where they've exerted this extraordinary authority over things that no previous administration had the power to do under the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act.
It's really hard to understand where Republicans are coming from unless you see their position as really a reaction to the overreach of the Obama years.
Examiner: Do you see this reaction to the Obama years continuing into the next administration, regardless of a Republican or Democrat being in the Oval Office? With a Republican president, the tendency would be to roll back the rules, while under a Democrat, there has been some suggestion of making them even more stringent.
Holmstead: I think, regardless of which Republican might be elected, you will certainly see an effort to moderate a lot of the things that have been done. I think the Clean Power Plan would very quickly and easily be revoked.
People have said you can't undo the endangerment finding [outlining the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide], and that may be true. But you don't need to revoke the endangerment finding to say the Clean Power Plan goes way beyond statutory authority. And you would do something that was more consistent with congressional intent.
On something like Waters of the U.S., something like the Clean Power Plan and standards for new plants that basically prohibit new coal-fired power plants, I think you would see Republicans take steps quickly to undo those things.
I think that part is pretty easy to predict. Beyond that, though, I guess I would hope — and I would have some hope of this under a Democratic administration — there are a lot of people out there who are not involved in the Washington battles, but who implement these laws at the state level that are frustrated at the unnecessary regulation and paperwork.
If you look at the state implementation plan submittals that have been pending for years. And EPA, they don't approve them, they don't object to them, they just kind of hang around as [states] continually get more requirements they have to deal with.
A lot of things do little or nothing to improve the environment. I think certainly under a Republican administration, and maybe under a Democratic administration, there would be an effort to clean away some of the underbrush and modernize not only the Clean Air Act, but the Clean Water Act, just to make things work better for everyone.
You've got a lot of blue state environmental agencies that would like to see this kind of Clean Air Act reform. I don't think that's really been possible for the last eight years. But depending on how the elections go, especially if you have divided government — if you have a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in the House and Senate — which is of course what we have today, but if you have a president who is more willing to work with the Congress, I think we can make some real progress in terms of improving and reforming our environmental laws.
Examiner: Can you speculate how blue states wanting EPA reform plays out in the presidential or congressional elections?
Holmstead: To those of us that spend so much of our time dealing with environmental issues, they don't seem to be key issues in political races around the country, with a few exceptions. I would certainly in West Virginia, in Wyoming, in Georgia and some of the southern states.
I know it's frustrating for environmental groups who believe that climate change should be the No. 1 issue. And yet when you see the polls, it's just not that important for most people. I'm not sure that during the political campaign we're going to see environmental issues driving a lot of votes.
Tom Steyer has invested a lot of money to try to change that, and has proven that it just doesn't move the needle very much. I don't know if people are going to be campaigning on the issue, but I think once the dust settles, you're going to have some thoughtful people who say, look, it's really time to modernize some of these laws.
Examiner: If a Republican administration comes in, how do you think the White House will face the issue of global warming and climate change? Will it be through technology like in the George W. Bush years?
Holmstead: You go back to George W. Bush, and I think he and his senior advisers believed that global warming posed a risk. And although there continued to be a lot of uncertainties over the magnitude of that risk, it was worth taking steps to address that risk.
When I was involved in those conversations, I think the point that people often made was if the U.S. simply takes regulatory steps to make our energy more expensive, that's not going to change the path for future greenhouse gas emissions.
The reason that people around the world continue to build coal plants is not because they want to emit CO2, but because they want to provide electricity at the lowest cost. And almost everywhere the lowest cost way to produce electricity is with coal.
The problem with renewables is that they don't provide baseload, dispatchable power. Unless someone can produce electricity that is comparable to coal, especially the developing world is going to continue to build coal plants.
People point to Paris and say otherwise, but we haven't seen any real evidence that in the developing world those kind of agreements are really changing things on the ground. What will change things on the ground is new technologies that produce electricity or fuel transportation at a reasonable cost.
I do think that the Republican response [to climate change] — of course we don't know yet who the nominee will be — will be more focused on technology and innovation. Instead of spending billions and billions of dollars on subsidizing things that aren't competitive yet, I think you will see more effort to invest in basic R&D ... technological breakthroughs.
We aren't going to get there if we say the whole world must be powered by today's wind and solar, because it's just not cost effective. You've got to find breakthrough technologies.
I do think the Republican response will be much more focused on technology innovation.
Examiner: On the Paris agreement. Is it, or is it not legally binding? Secretary of State John Kerry continues to say aspects of the framework are legally binding, although the agreement says it is non-binding.
Holmstead: The only thing that is legally binding about the Paris agreement are things that were already legally binding under the United Nations framework convention on climate change, the UNFCC.
And you may remember that going back to 1991 or '92, when the framework was signed, and this goes back to the first Bush administration, countries around the world did agree to monitor and report on greenhouse gas emissions. And the United States has done that since the early '90s.
That is an obligation, but it doesn't really stem from Paris. It's just a restatement of an obligation of [larger industrialized] countries, including the U.S., already had going back to the 1990s.
The rest of the agreement is largely aspirational, and I think countries will make efforts to comply, but just like we saw with Kyoto, which was supposedly legally binding, but some countries certainly did not meet the pledges they made. And of course the United States never even ratified Kyoto.
I think Paris is important as a political statement, but the legally binding part is really about these reporting and review requirements that already applied under the [U.N. climate convention].
Examiner: Would a Republican president care enough to dismantle what President Obama did in Paris?
Holmstead: If I were advising the new president, I would advise that it would be a mistake to try to take any action to pull out of Paris. Paris is what it is. It is largely a political statement, and I don't think there would be any reason either legal or political to try to withdraw from the treaty. You would be using up a lot of political capital on something that doesn't matter very much.
The Obama administration has claimed ever since the stay of the Clean Power Plan was issued [by the Supreme Court] that the U.S. would meet its Paris pledge regardless of whether the Clean Power Plan stays in place because of the tax credits and the cost of natural gas and other things.
If that is correct, and I'm not saying it is, there is no reason to take on all that you have to take on to try to get out of this treaty. What I think you would do is continue to follow what you think is good policy domestically, and work with international partners. There is certainly a lot we can do on the technology development side.
This is the long answer to a short question. I don't think a Republican president would try to withdraw from Paris. There is just no need to do that.