James L. Connaughton, who was chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the George W. Bush administration, has been demonized by the likes of Rolling Stone. But in an interview with National Review Online, the current executive vice president on public and environmental policy at Constellation Energy proves more complex than the caricature: supportive of nuclear, yes, while having complimentary things to say about both cap-and-trade (for fear of the EPA run wild) and the Obama administration. He also proves to have a very WFB taste in music.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How will the Bush administration’s energy record hold up long term?
JAMES CONNAUGHTON: The Bush-administration energy plan is holding up extremely well and will only continue to do so as it advances the nation’s energy-security, air-pollution, and climate-change objectives. Most of the comprehensive plan announced in the Spring of 2001 has now been adopted in bipartisan federal legislation, federal and state budgets, and administrative actions. For example, in 2005, Congress passed an energy bill that significantly expanded and refocused our energy research and development programs, and dramatically cut needless oil and gas subsidies. In 2007, we worked with the Democratic-led Congress to pass a series of mandates on vehicle fuel efficiency, renewable fuels, efficiency of appliances, lighting, and federal-government operations.
LOPEZ: During this time, both Republican and Democrat-led Congresses put in place more than $40 billion in incentives called for by President Bush to transform our energy system to cleaner, more secure sources of energy.
CONNAUGHTON: The Bush administration adopted the most stringent requirements in history to reduce harmful air pollution from power plants and diesel engines, and significantly improved the processes for exploring and siting new energy sources of all kinds.
Finally, misguided taboos on new nuclear energy, offshore energy, and new on-shore natural gas development were finally broken, opening up major new opportunities for the nation.
LOPEZ: What are we watching unfold in the Obama administration on energy policy?
CONNAUGHTON: Overall, I am encouraged by the Obama administration’s approach to energy policy.
The administration is implementing the new mandates of the 2007 energy bill, and they have added $70 billion to advance new clean energy initiatives. Additionally, they are working to advance a smart energy grid and expand transmission. I look forward to ongoing efforts in these areas.
President Obama and Secretary of Energy Chu’s comments supporting the advancement of new nuclear energy are very important. It is vital that the United States seizes the opportunity to advance nuclear energy.
On the issue of climate change and controls on greenhouse-gas emissions, the president and his EPA administrator have publicly stated that federal legislation is far preferable to EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act — which has serious shortcomings when it comes to addressing greenhouse gases. As part of a broader energy package, President Obama wants a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions modeled on the highly successful acid-rain cap-and-trade program that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the past. In my experience, cap-and-trade is the most flexible and cost-effective policy tool we can use to tackle emissions from the major economic sectors. And I believe that the president’s stated goals are a reasonably ambitious place to start the discussion.
LOPEZ: What’s wrong with cap-and-trade?
CONNAUGHTON: Nothing per se. Cap-and-trade, done the right way, has long proven to be a very effective way and low-cost way to achieve environmental goals. Cap-and-trade, done the wrong way, can be a major problem. We need to remember that cap-and-trade as a policy tool was first conceived and developed by conservative economists and legal scholars as a more effective alternative to command-and-control regulation that is costly, inflexible, and stifles innovation, or a tax that would be horribly regressive, unlikely to meet goals, and enrich government coffers for inevitably inefficient redistribution.