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Defying Gov’t Censorship, EPA Attorneys Speak Out Against White House-Backed Climate Change Proposal “Cap and Trade”

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The Environmental Protection Agency is being accused of trying to silence two longtime EPA enforcement attorneys who have publicly criticized a key component of the climate change legislation being considered by Congress. Last week the EPA directed Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel to remove or edit a video they posted to YouTube that warns a cap-and-trade plan will not effectively combat global warming and is “fatally flawed.” The couple instead advocate for a solution involving carbon fees with rebates. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Environmental Protection Agency is being accused of trying to silence two longtime EPA enforcement attorneys who have publicly criticized a key component of the climate change legislation being considered by Congress. Last week, the EPA directed Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel to remove or edit a video they posted to YouTube that warns a cap-and-trade plan will not effectively combat global warming and is, quote, “fatally flawed.” The couple instead advocate for a solution involving carbon fees with rebates.

The video is titled “The Huge Mistake” and was posted to the web in September. The agency issued its warning only after the couple published an opinion article in the Washington Post in late October, which echoed concerns raised in the video. The EPA also said they would have to get approval for any future outside writing projects.

The video is no longer on the couple’s website, but it is available in full through link posted on the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, these are the two sentences the EPA ordered Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel to remove from the video or face “disciplinary action.”

    ALLAN ZABEL: Our opinions are based on more than twenty years each working as attorneys at the US Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco regional office. In my work at EPA, I have been overseeing California’s cap-and-trade and offset programs for more than twenty years.

AMY GOODMAN: EPA says it’s simply asking the couple to follow government ethics rules that require them to state that their views are their own and not those of the agency. But the couple do state in the video that they were speaking in their capacity as private citizens, parents and a married couple, and not on behalf of the EPA.

    ALLAN ZABEL: However, nothing in this video is intended to represent the views of EPA or the Obama administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel join us now from Berkeley, California.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Is this appearance approved by the EPA?

ALLAN ZABEL: Yes, we do have ethical clearance to continue speaking out on climate change issues. We just had not understood that the restrictions on that clearance prohibited us from describing in detail our government experience, the nature or length of our government experience.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, could you talk some about your objections to the cap-and-trade approach to handling climate change?

ALLAN ZABEL: Yes. Basically, as stated in the video, we think that cap and trade is — with offsets, especially — is fundamentally flawed. And the reason for that is that we think offsets — offsets are reductions in greenhouse gases which happen outside the capped sources, and offsets, especially in a world market, cannot be adequately enforced or policed, and you’re not sure whether the reductions are real, whether they go beyond what would have happened anyway.

And since the cap-and-trade bills before Congress include so many offsets, these programs could be run for approximately twenty years while relying on reductions only from these offsets. And so, we think that the — this fatal flaw locks in climate degradation for approximately twenty years.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I think one of the big problems is that people don’t even understand what’s being talked about, like when you talk about cap and trade, when you talk about offsets. Laurie Williams, give us a basic lesson, just a thumbnail kind of primer. What are offsets? What’s cap and trade?

LAURIE WILLIAMS: OK. Cap and trade means that facilities need to, year by year, reduce their emissions until a certain level is met. That’s supposed to be a declining cap. Trading means that if some facilities have more trouble than others reducing their emissions, they can buy pollution permits from other facilities that are having an easier time reducing.

However, in this climate bill, facilities can meet their obligation to reduce, not only by buying permits from other facilities, but by buying carbon offsets. And the bill specifically authorizes more than two billion tons a year of offsets, which would be enough to cover all required reductions for almost twenty years. In addition, you know, there are other problems with that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And an offset? Could you explain what an offset is?

LAURIE WILLIAMS: Right. So, a carbon offset means some reduction that happens outside the capped sources. And specifically, we give a couple examples in our video.

Sorry, I need a little water.

But one good example that a lot of people are able to understand is forestry. So — sorry — so let’s say you have a forest, and I pay you to reduce or stop logging in your forest. That allows me to burn coal above the cap at my coal-fired power plant. But the question is — perhaps you were never planning to cut your forest, and now you’ve just received a bonus for what you were going to do anyway. Or maybe you were planning to cut your forest, and now you don’t. But demand for wood doesn’t go away. So what happens is, that economic activity merely shifts to somewhere else. So there’s not truly an additional reduction. All you have is extra coal burned above the cap. That’s a simple example of a carbon offset.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Or, for example, if you’re an international or multinational corporation and you have a forest in Brazil and a forest in the United States, you could reduce your use of the forest in the United States but increase it in Brazil, and that would not be affected?

LAURIE WILLIAMS: Right. That’s the kind of — what’s called leakage that results in the carbon offsets not being an additional reduction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you also mention that your experience in California shows you that even the cap part of cap and trade has been used wrongly, because the limits on the caps are sometimes artificially high? Could you explain that?

LAURIE WILLIAMS: Allan may be better able to understand — to explain that.

ALLAN ZABEL: In the Los Angeles area, there is a program called Reclaim that deals with ground-level smog. And when the program was initially started, it was approximately 70 percent over-inflated, such that it took about seven years for the reductions in the cap to reach what were the actual emissions. So that was seven lost years.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain your objection to the Waxman bill, Markey-Waxman?

ALLAN ZABEL: Well, fundamentally, it’s twofold. One is the inclusion of the offsets. I mean, we think that that really locks in climate degradation. But the second is that we don’t think that cap and trade really is ultimately a good or effective mechanism, because, as was experienced in Europe, where cap and trade did fail for climate change, it produces price volatility and all sorts of gaming potentials, which are not good for economic activity. If you’re going to get people to invest in clean energy, businesspeople need certainty. They need to know that their investments in clean energy are going to be profitable. And cap and trade doesn’t provide that certainty.

LAURIE WILLIAMS: What we would say is that the major obstacle to a clean energy revolution is the fact that uncontrolled fossil fuels remain a lot cheaper than the clean energy alternatives we have today. That’s why a major transition is not yet happening. And a real solution would be fixing that.

We don’t think that cap and trade with offsets has a near-term chance to fix that. In addition, in Waxman-Markey and in the Kerry-Boxer bill that’s been introduced in the Senate, the goals for reductions are extremely weak, so they do not meet what most scientists are saying are necessary to be effective in addressing climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: A couple weeks ago, we spoke with the Australian scientist Tim Flannery, who had come to this country. He was voted Australian of the Year in 2007. We asked him to talk a little bit about cap and trade.

    TIM FLANNERY: Look, cap and trade, by itself, is not enough, but it is essential in terms of these international negotiations. And one way of showing that is to look at the alternatives. Just say the US went with a carbon tax. That would leave the President in a position where he’d be going to Copenhagen and saying, “Look, we’ve got a carbon tax, but we’ve got no idea really what it’s going to do in terms of our emissions profile.” So, countries would just say, “Well, what are you actually pledging to? What are you — how are you going to deal with your emissions?” You know, the only method, really, to allow countries to see transparently what other countries intend to do and then share the burden equally is through a cap-and-trade system. So it’s not enough to deal with emissions overall, but it is an essential prerequisite for any global deal on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery is also the chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council. By the way, Democracy Now! will be there broadcasting for two weeks from the big summit in December.

But, Allan Zabel, your response? He’s a big proponent of cap and trade.

ALLAN ZABEL: Well, that assumes that the cap in cap and trade actually works, which we’re saying that it doesn’t, because of — especially because of these outside offsets. And the experience in Europe really bore that out when they tried to do the Kyoto Protocol 1. And it was pretty much of a dismal failure. It produced lots of price volatility. There were huge windfall profits for utilities. And it produced very little in the way of greenhouse gas reductions.

LAURIE WILLIAMS: I think the other thing that happens is the offsets make it look, on an accounting basis, like you’re getting greenhouse gas reductions. Those get counted as reductions, when you’re in fact getting business as usual. So there’s the appearance, but not the reality of greenhouse gas reductions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Laurie Williams, you advocate instead a carbon tax with rebates. Could you explain how that would work?

LAURIE WILLIAMS: Yeah. So, we are calling this a carbon fee, because it’s a very targeted amount that you pay when you use uncontrolled fossil fuels. Basically, as we said earlier, the problem is that uncontrolled fossil fuels remain a lot cheaper than clean energy. What we would be proposing, and many economists agree would be effective, is that those three or four thousand points around the US where fossil fuels enter the economy, a fee, gradually increasing fee, would be applied, such that over ten to fifteen years the price of uncontrolled fossil fuels would rise above the price of the clean energy alternatives we have today.

To keep this affordable for the average consumer, the vast majority of the fees, and potentially all of them, could be returned to consumers, to individuals, in monthly per person rebates. And what this would mean is that if you only use the average amount of fossil fuels, you would not be in an economically worse position. But if you use more, you would be paying at a much higher rate. So people would have a huge incentive to cut back.

But even more important, perhaps, there would be a huge shift in the incentive for investment in clean energy. Since investors would know that clean energy would become profitable within a known time frame, they would have an incentive to move away from investing in coal, in shale oil, in tar sands, and they would have an incentive to invest in all different clean energy possibilities.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, how popular is your view within the EPA, within the Environmental Protection Agency?

ALLAN ZABEL: We’re not really sure of that. I mean, we get a great deal of support from the people who we know in our office, in our regional office, on a personal basis. But we can’t really say how widely shared our viewpoint is.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for sharing it with us today. Thank you for joining us, Laurie Williams, Allan Zabel, EPA lawyers who posted a video on YouTube that warns a cap-and-trade plan will not effectively control, deal with, combat global warming. They advocate for a solution involving carbon fees with rebates. And you can go to our website, where we link to the different YouTube sites that the EPA asked them to take down.

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