March away from coal to continue — Obama adviser

Source: Hannah Hess, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2016

No matter who sits in the Oval Office in January, the American electricity sector will keep moving away from coal, White House senior adviser Brian Deese said today.

Though Republicans, including presidential nominee Donald Trump, continue to attack U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Deese said market forces are driving power utilities in the direction of cleaner and lower-carbon solutions.

“I don’t think that is going to change,” Deese told an audience in New York during an event at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

With an office in the same suite in the West Wing as the chief of staff, Deese has played an inside role in helping set the tone on climate change in the final two years of the Obama administration.

Asked what would happen if the next president wants to change course, Deese also pointed to the production and investment tax credits for wind and solar that Congress extended late last year as key to the United States hitting its targets for greenhouse gas reductions.

“That is now law,” Deese said. “I think there’s very little likelihood that that would get revisited.”

Deese’s time with Obama goes back to his first campaign for president in 2008. The Yale Law School graduate has had a meteoric rise in the Obama administration, peaking in early 2015 when the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget was picked to succeed John Podesta as one of the president’s top policy advisers.

“[It is] nice and in some ways freeing to talk at the very end of an administration,” Deese said today.

The Paris climate agreement, for which Deese helped lay the groundwork, is set to take effect Nov. 4, with ratifications by the European Union, seven E.U. member states, New Zealand and India — along with earlier actions by the United States, China and other countries representing more than 56 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (E&ENews PM, Oct. 5).

Deese said future executive action on climate should include efforts to create more incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency, more work to reduce methane emissions, and continuing the transformation of the auto industry. He talked about advances in electric cars and autonomous vehicles and said there must be a framework in place to maintain public trust in advanced forms of transportation.

Deese also promoted efforts to link climate change to land conservation (Greenwire, Sept. 1). As an adviser, he is part of the circle that helps drive Obama’s designations of national monuments (Greenwire, May 25).

If Democrats maintain control of the White House, Deese said the next administration should move forward with the sector-by-sector approach to tackling climate change.

During his 75-minute presentation, Deese repeatedly acknowledged top-down regulations are the “second-best” strategy to a nationwide or worldwide carbon price, but the best option politically.

“The chance of a national carbon price being passed by Congress is low in the near future,” Deese said.

Obama administration priorities on Capitol Hill include a package of support for coal communities and other bipartisan legislation where “you don’t get into the really fraught politics of something like cap and trade,” Deese said.

Central to Deese’s speech was a chart showing carbon pollution from the energy sector declining as domestic productivity increased. The graphic has become one of his favorites, “to the point where my staff has begun to mock me,” Deese said.

Deese said he thinks the argument that economic growth can be separate from emissions growth will be central to moving beyond partisan politics on climate. Republicans have started to agree the problem is real, he said, but many believe it is too costly to act.

Pointing to the chart, Deese said, “This period of decoupling allows us to say more unambiguously and with more confidence than ever that acting on climate change is in our best interest. Period.”