In this episode—the final episode of the “Big Decisions” spin-off series—RFF CEO and President Richard G. Newell talks with Chair of the RFF Board of Directors Susan Tierney about how scholars at RFF will continue studying effective emissions reduction and risk mitigation strategies, and how policymakers might grapple with environmental issues after this week’s election. While Newell considers the potential for legislators to pursue economy-wide carbon pricing, Tierney looks forward to seeing whether Congress responds to the ongoing recession with a stimulus package that supports workers and positions the economy for a clean energy transition. Regardless of which candidate succeeds in the presidential election and which party gains the majority of seats in Congress, both Newell and Tierney agree that high-quality data and policy analysis will be essential for developing effective regulations and policies.
This is the final episode of our month-long spin-off series, “Big Decisions: The Future of US Environmental and Energy Policy.” Previous episodes in the series—in which RFF President Richard G. Newell and RFF Board of Directors Chair Susan Tierney chat with leading decisionmakers, analysts, researchers, and reporters about the big decisions that will impact US environmental and energy policy in the years to come—will remain available on the Resources Radio website.
Listen to the Podcast
- Policy will be shaped by decisionmakers at all levels of government: “The thing that really struck me across these conversations was just how consequential this election will be for environmental, energy, and climate policy. It’s not just the executive branch and federal regulation and international diplomacy. It’s also the Congress … it’s also the courts. While they’re not elected officials, they’re appointed by elected officials and have a very important effect over time on the implementation and constraints that are based upon environmental energy policy. It’s also state-level legislators, governors, and even public utility commissioners.” —Richard G. Newell (9:35)
- Reliable data is essential for environmental decisionmaking: “We need much better information for the financial sector, for communities, and for government and businesses to confront climate risk and build resilience. I’ll just also note the importance of addressing the distributional impacts of energy and environmental policies on workers and communities. This relates both to the benefits of environmental protection—so that those benefits are equitably shared—and it also relates to paying attention to the impacts of policies … on workers and communities.” —Richard G. Newell (19:06)
- A thoughtful green stimulus package could offer both economic and environmental benefits: “I’m focused, like everybody else, on jobs, economic development, and positioning the economy for the low-carbon energy transition. So, I hope that [a stimulus] package happens, of course, and I hope that it includes a variety of things that will be important for that positioning, including jobs in the near term and energy efficiency, especially in low-income homes. We know that there's such a great multiplier effect for energy efficiency investments, [because energy efficiency] is a great job creator, and those are good-paying jobs.” —Susan Tierney (20:58)
The Full Transcript
Richard G. Newell: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your guest host Richard Newell.
Susan Tierney: I'm your guest host Sue Tierney. This episode continues our month long spin-off series called “Big Decisions: the Future of US Environmental and Energy Policy.”
Richard G. Newell: For today's final episode of our special “Big Decisions” series on Resources Radio, My co-host and guest is Sue Tierney, chair of the board of directors at Resources for the Future, senior advisor at Analysis Group, and an expert in energy economics, and many other topics that we cover here at RFF.
Susan Tierney: Hi Richard, I'm so happy to be here with you on this podcast. It's great to be with you as my co-host and guest today, too. You need no introduction, but let's make it official. You're the president and CEO of Resources for the Future, and you have an extraordinary background in environmental and energy economics.
Thank you so much for engaging on these topics with me. So, Richard, we've asked this of all of our guests while hosting this special series of Resources Radio, and I'd like to turn the question around on you. How did you end up finding an interest in building a career in energy and the environment?
Richard G. Newell: Well, it's kind of a funny story maybe. In 1987, I was in the process of finishing my undergraduate work. At the time I was focused on materials engineering and philosophy. I was doing a dual degree in that and I recognized that that wasn't where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. And so, I was in a time of kind of looking at different things and exploring.
It was around that time that there was something called the gar-barge, which was a vessel full of garbage; its name was the Mobro 4,000. People may remember that who were around at that time. It sailed from Long Island and it headed to North Carolina, where it was supposed to be disposed of, but when it got there, reporters showed up and it was turned away. And so, it basically headed down the East coast of the United States. It was denied entry into Mexican waters. It went as far as Belize before it came back after being rejected at all these places, it headed back to New York and it was eventually incinerated in Brooklyn in a landfill there.
And so, I looked at this and I looked at other issues at the time, like acid rain and the ozone hole, and I said, "This isn't just a technology issue. It's partly that, but there's something else going on here." There's the cost of the different options, there's the politics, there's the business, and there's the policy of making change happen. And I said, "That's for me." It's analytical, it's broad thinking, and it's really important to society. And so, it was after that, that I became more focused specifically on the economics of climate and energy policy, technology, and markets. But that's how I got going.
Susan Tierney: That's cool that you were a philosopher.
Richard G. Newell: It's great.
Susan Tierney: It shows these days.
Richard G. Newell: Well, hopefully in good ways. So, I'd ask you the same thing about your origins, but you've already answered the question in an earlier Resources Radio podcast episode from last December. So, let me ask you a different question, which is related to the presidential transition. So, you've been involved on transition teams for a couple of presidential administrations and have held various roles within the federal government. Can you tell us a funny or favorite personal story from those experiences?
Susan Tierney: Well, I do have a couple of funny stories, but I don't think I should share them on the radio. So, they're kind of sketchy. Maybe I'll talk to you about them in private at one point. But I would like to share a couple of things about my experience as the co-leader with Elgie Holstein of the Obama-Biden transition team at the Department of Energy. Based on that experience, I really want to celebrate the peaceful and constructive transition of democratically elected leaders.
You know that this was a transition from the George W. Bush administration to the Barack Obama-Joe Biden administration. And it was, of course, a change in party. I cannot say enough good words about the transition that occurred at the end of 2008, in the beginning of 2009. It was a very complicated time; the economic crisis was real and deep. The Department of Energy staff did a great job of handing things off from their prior administration to the next.
We had great briefings, we had great substantive memos, it was extremely cooperative, very responsive information. And I can't point to anything that seemed like angling or caginess or withholding of information, strategic sharing, anything like that. It was really great. That's what we deserve, and I got the privilege of operating in that kind of environment.
Richard G. Newell: Sue, in this “Big Decisions” series on the Resources Radio podcast, we've heard from a diverse set of experts and leaders about policymaking and energy in the environment at the federal and state levels. All this at a time when there's intense public interest in the outcome of this year's national and state elections. We've heard from an established journalist Amy Harder of Axios, we've heard from two experts on federal administrative law related to air emissions, that's Jody Freeman from Harvard Law School, and a member of Obama's White House Climate Office, and also Jeff Holmstead from Bracewell Law Firm and the EPA under President George W. Bush.
We also heard from a veteran state and federal policymaker, who's focused on clean air issues over many decades in which the Clean Air Act has been implemented across the states. That's Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board. We also heard from the head of a key national trade association that supports communities of color in the energy industry, Paula Glover, who's now head of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, and who will soon lead the Alliance to Save Energy. A really amazing group of individuals who are also experts in their fields. So Sue, do you have any insights about the themes you've noticed, or key takeaways that you want to share from these interviews?
Susan Tierney: Sure, that's a great question. Those were amazing conversations and not only substantively interesting, but very entertaining. The first one was Amy Harder, and I was really impressed with her interest in moving from Washington, DC, to the Pacific Northwest, so that she could focus more on what's happening in the states on clean energy and climate issues. Amy is really smart. She's really dogged and a great, insightful reporter. So, I look forward to good things from her in the future.
Richard G. Newell: Absolutely.
Susan Tierney: I loved listening to and speaking with Jody Freeman and Jeff Holmstead; those two attorneys are so, so good—so smart. The conversation on the podcast with them really highlighted the different points of view there are among legal experts regarding what can happen when one uses the authorities of the Clean Air Act. That's quite a robust and important law, and their experiences in sharing what it can and cannot do in their view was really, really important.
Mary, of course, was wonderful to listen to because she described the arc of her career in implementing the Clean Air Act. She was there at the beginning, one of the early litigants, I guess, in using the authorities of the Clean Air Act. And boy, watching her career from state, to federal, to state government using her policy and political chops and her legal expertise was really important. For me, on a personal level, it was especially interesting to hear about that.
I grew up in Southern California. It was the smog there that brought me to this field. I couldn't figure out how it could be so bad. And hearing Mary talk about the implementation of the Clean Air Act, and the legal tools that it allows was really great. And then finally, Paula Glover of Association of Blacks in Energy, she described really authoritatively and authentically and substantively, the challenges that black professionals and other people of color have faced in influencing policy decisions. It was great to hear from her. So Richard, I'd be interested in hearing your answer to the same question: What things struck you in those conversations?
Richard G. Newell: Well, I'll just add to that. It was a real joy and privilege to conduct the interviews that I did. And also, to listen to the ones that you conducted. Really, really interesting set of conversations. The thing that really struck me across these conversations was really just how consequential this election will be for environmental, energy, and climate policy. It's not just the executive branch and federal regulation and international diplomacy, it's also the Congress, the nexus of federal spending, clean energy, and climate. And of course, broader energy and climate policy.
It's also the courts. While they're not elected officials, they're appointed by elected officials and have a very important effect over time on the implementation and constraints that are based upon environmental energy policy. It's also state-level legislators, governors, and even public utility commissioners. All of this, of course, will affect how the business community and the rest of the world reacts to what unfolds here in the United States. So this is, to my mind, absolutely the most consequential election in our lifetime for future environmental energy and climate policy.
Susan Tierney: Really good points. You know, RFF as a nonprofit organization is very careful to not take positions in electoral races or legislative politics around specific proposed bills. So, regardless of the outcome of this election that listeners may know about by the time that they hear this podcast, there are some important research questions that may be relevant for what's ahead in the next administration. I wonder, if you could share some thoughts that you might have about the kinds of questions, research questions, that RFF scholars will be examining and exploring in the future.
Richard G. Newell: Regardless of the outcome, RFF will be focused on two major areas where we think we can make a difference in improving environmental energy and natural resource decisions. The first is in designing smart emission reduction strategies. And the second is in confronting risk and building resilience.
The degree to which we focus on federal legislative, federal executive, state level, or international and corporate venues, will definitely be affected by the results of the election because that'll determine where the action is over the next few years. There's a number of specific questions that we're working on because we think we can have a positive impact through our work, in terms of both advancing a healthy environment and also in terms of helping to enable a thriving economy.
So, Sue, you have experience in academia, and in state and federal government, and also in consulting to a wide variety of clients. I also know you're keenly aware of the value of including evidence-based information as part of the decision-making process by federal and state officials in legislative settings, and administrative agencies. So, can you comment on the difference that you think it makes for federal and state decisionmakers to have access to sound economic and policy analysis?
Susan Tierney: Well, clearly it's indispensable. I know there's some times that people wonder whether or not policymakers do rely on analytic work, but we have to keep trying to get it there. And I'm very familiar, especially with executive branch processes where technical information and economic analysis is totally relevant and has been relied upon for the design of state policy, for example.
I'm very familiar with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) work that Dallas Burtraw, Karen Palmer, and other colleagues have done for many years—from the beginning of the planning for RGGI design—and that was really helpful. I'm very familiar with the analysis that Karen again, and Dan Shawhan have done on the carbon pricing mechanism in regional transmission organization markets.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer's work on wildfires is going to be really important as states like California consider what policies to implement to address that increasingly awful climate impact. There's really important work, and I'm so glad that RFF is at the center of that. But let me ask you the same question. I know that you served as head of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and even though it's not a policymaking agency, its work is really important for providing data analysis, and other information in the energy domain. So, I wonder what difference you think it makes having that kind of high quality data and analysis?
Richard G. Newell: Well, so it probably won't come as a surprise to you, or anybody, that I think having high quality data and analysis is really important. It's interesting, EIA was actually created out of the energy crisis of the 1970s. And what happened at the time, actually, John Dingell was a key person involved in these deliberations. At the time, the government basically realized it did not have the data and information it needed about the energy sector to make good decisions in response to the energy crisis.
And so, it created EIA, it pulled together some other preexisting agencies but then vastly expanded the investment in collecting data around the energy system so that good decisions could be made. Actually, Resources for the Future was created in 1952 for a quite similar reason. This is the Truman-Eisenhower era; the country was heading into a period of rapid post-war economic expansion, and was concerned both about the kind of the resource base and resource availability to support that—as well as the conservation side of things and the environmental implications of resource use.
If you look at RFF's early years, a lot of the work at RFF was actually about just data collection. There's these vast tomes that were created at that time, and this actually predates the existence of the EIA, that focused on the energy system and other resource use to provide good information and analysis. When I was at EIA in 2009 to '11, this is a period when the shale gas boom, and then the shale oil boom, was happening.
Folks in industry, the general public, certainly federal and state decisionmakers were trying to understand what's happening here. What's the state of play? How do we think it's going to change into the future? At that time, we also were doing analysis of the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill, and Senator Bingaman's clean energy standard. And the reason that Congress and others turned to the Energy Information Administration is because of the rigor and the independence of that analysis and its importance for informing good decisions.
At that time, I also recall we built much better data systems on energy consumption and energy efficiency, and also solar energy. Which, this is about a decade ago, this is a period when solar energy was really starting to take off in the United States. So, I think all of this is absolutely essential to inform good decisions by policymakers and by the private sector. Ultimately, actions have consequences, but if you don't have good data and analysis, you have little idea of what those consequences might be. You need a good baseline picture of reality, and you need a solid understanding of how your actions might change that reality.
Susan Tierney: Thanks. A great history lesson about the beginnings of each of those organizations. And I love the history of RFF. It's an Eisenhower-era organization, and I'm an Eisenhower-era girl, so it's nice to hear about it. As I mentioned earlier, we don't know who's going to win this 2020 presidential election, and who's going to be leading Congress as we record this podcast. But I wonder if you can comment on any hope for initiatives, or policies from the federal government that you are looking forward to either hearing about or advancing in the next couple of years?
Richard G. Newell: Well, the big one is certainly climate change and clean energy. My hope would be for economy-wide action to address climate change. Ideally, that's through a broad-based price on carbon, and if not, it's through well-designed flexible policies at the sector level that embrace a wide range of technological options, and I hope, harness the power of the marketplace.
There's a number of specifics I could go into for specific sectors like power, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry, and land use, but let me instead name a second major area, which is that we really need to do our best to design public policies for economic stimulus, infrastructure investment, and technology research and development to advance our economic wellbeing and environmental wellbeing at the same time. I think we can do that, but it'll take information and some analysis to help steer what could be historically massive investments.
A third area, which we actually touched on earlier, is what I'd call “data for decisions.” We need much better information for the financial sector, for communities, and for government and businesses to confront climate risk and build resilience. And I'll just quickly note one final thing that I really have to mention, which is the importance of addressing the distributional impacts of energy and environmental policies on workers and communities. This relates both to the benefits of environmental protection, so that those benefits are equitably shared, and it also relates to paying attention to the impacts of policies, and also just normal market and technology transitions of impacts of those things on workers and communities.
We need to do a better job of looking ahead as a country, foreseeing where these transitions are headed, and help workers and communities prepare for that future. None of this is easy, but I think it's incredibly important. So, what about you, Sue? What policies would you look forward to the most?
Susan Tierney: Well, I have to say I'm pretty focused on that economic stimulus set of issues that you just described. Of course, I hope that there are policies that address and accelerate action to mitigate the emissions related to climate change. But in the near term, given where we are in the economic crisis, I really hope that there is a clean energy and environmental economic stimulus package coming forward.
So, I'm focused on that, and I'm focused like everybody else on the jobs, the economic development, positioning the economy for the low carbon energy transition. So, I hope that package happens of course, and I hope that it includes a variety of things that really will be important for that positioning, as well as jobs in the near term. That could be energy efficiency, especially in low-income homes. We know that there's such a great multiplier effect for energy efficiency investments, it's like construction work, and it's a great job creator and those are good paying jobs. So, that's a good one.
Electrification of buildings that now use natural gas appliances and heating systems, that could be stimulated by this package. There's a lot of smart grid work that could be done both on transmission and distribution facilities. Especially on the distribution end, there are just so many things associated with control systems, processors, analytic things that are going to be needed to be added to the grid to make it handle so much more energy resources that are on the customer's premises.
There could be a conservation corps associated with tree planting, incentives for solar and wind, electric vehicle charging. Half of the customers in the United States do not have advanced meters. We're going to need that in the energy transition. Finally, I think I would note the importance of economic assistance for communities that are going to be affected, or are already being affected by this energy transition. So, there's a lot to do there, and I'm really hoping that we see action on that pretty soon.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, that's a really important list of different options. And I think we know that where things head in terms of future stimulus response and investment is going to certainly depend upon election outcomes, in part. Personally, I hope that we learn from the lessons, both positive and not so positive, from past experiences where major investments are made in kind of short periods of time. And so, one of the things that we're focused on at Resources for the Future is helping to design evidence, and take advantage of what we know from past experience about, what are the best ways to deploy resources to help advance these balls?
Susan Tierney: Well, I think we probably need to turn to our last question, Richard. And this is the famous “Top of the Stack” question that all of the guests get asked on Resources Radio podcast. So, what have you read, watched, or heard recently related to energy, the environment, or even the democratic process that you think is really interesting, and that you want to share with the listeners?
Richard G. Newell: Well, a couple things in the way of books. One is The New Map, which is Dan Yergin’s latest book. It's called The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations. It builds on his prior, very significant books around energy and geopolitics and environment. And then, the other one I'm reading is a book by Vaclav Smil called Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. And it really explores the notion of growth across biological, physical, and also civilization and economies. Really interesting book.
Now, I will note that one of these books, the Yergin book, is like 470 pages, and the Smil book is more than 600 pages. So, it takes a while to get through these, but those are both really interesting books. And in terms of TV, unfortunately I finished it, but I'd recommend this Norwegian series called Occupied. If you haven't seen it, it depicts a fictional near future where due to catastrophic climate events, Norway's prime minister stops the country's oil and gas production and announces that there's this new nuclear authorial reactor that can provide clean energy at reasonable costs.
But in the meantime, there's a short-term energy crisis that unfolds, and with the support of the Europeans, Russia invades Norway and occupies Norway to restore the oil and gas production, and it's a really interesting series. It's full of political maneuvering, people questioning their personal allegiances, and all with climate and energy as a backdrop. So, what about you? What's on the top of your stack right now?
Susan Tierney: Well, I have two shows that I just want to mention because they were terrific. These are TV series. One is The Comey Rule that describes the Comey investigations that were going on, and it takes the viewer all the way up to the period right before the election four years ago. It's very interesting and well done. Similarly, I really loved seeing The Trial of the Chicago 7. It's a new Aaron Sorkin film that's just very, very well done. So, I recommend that.
On the book stack, I tend to listen to books and there's two that I want to mention. One of them is really an extraordinary story of leadership at a time of crisis. And that's Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile. It's about Winston Churchill and the blitz in Britain, and it's really wonderful and gives you hope for democratic processes and leadership.
And then the second one is a book by Reed Hundt, who was the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and was there at the time and close to the people who were involved in the last economic stimulus effort that occurred, at the moment that Barack Obama was being elected and then began to govern. This is called A Crisis Wasted. And it's really, really interesting if you want to get some insights into what decisionmaking is like in the close advisers to a president.
Richard G. Newell: Really interesting. I see history as a theme there.
Susan Tierney: Yeah. It's true. Richard, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this project. It's been really fun. I have learned so much from the guests. It's been a fun chance to sit on the hot seat with you and co-host this podcast. I really appreciate it.
Richard G. Newell: Oh, me too, Sue. I've been really excited to be able to drop in for this series. I'm glad to have you as my partner in this. Thanks so much for joining me, and big thanks also to our guests along the way, Axios reporter Amy Harder, environmental lawyers Jody Freeman and Jeff Holmstead, chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, President and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, Paula Glover.
Regardless of what happens with all the big decisions coming up in the next few days, weeks, and years, RFF scholars will continue to apply our nonpartisan economic research to help inform good decisions related to energy, the environment, and natural resources. Next week, we're back to our regular programming with Daniel Raimi and Kristin Hayes on Resources Radio. Thanks so much for listening.
Susan Tierney: And thanks to our listeners who have voted, thumbs up for that. You've been listening to Resources Radio, thanks so much for tuning in.
Richard G. Newell: 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.
Susan Tierney: 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 RFF at rff.org.
Richard G. Newell: Views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Susan Tierney: Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by Daniel Raimi.
Susan Tierney and Richard G. Newell: Please join us next week for another episode.