An interview with California environmental adviser Terry Tamminen
Terry Tamminen is a compact, affable man. With his bluntness and lack of pretense, it’s easy to see why Arnold Schwarzenegger trusted him. The California governor brought Tamminen on as his environmental adviser in 2003, elevated him to secretary of the state EPA, and then appointed him a senior cabinet adviser in 2004. In part due to Tamminen’s behind-the-scenes influence and tireless work, Schwarzenegger’s first term saw the state pass numerous groundbreaking environmental laws.
Now, with Schwarzenegger’s blessing, Tamminen has left the administration to “Johnny Appleseed” California’s climate plan. He wants to help other states experiment and share best practices, with the ultimate goal of creating a de facto national greenhouse-gas policy, forcing the feds’ hand on the issue.
The latest addition to Tamminen’s almost comically varied resume — sheep farmer, licensed ship captain, real-estate mogul, environmental campaigner — is author. His new book Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction is a scathing indictment of big oil companies, a careful accounting of the subsidies they receive and the costs they impose, and a consideration of legal strategies to hold them responsible.
I met with Tamminen over lunch, where we spoke about Schwarzenegger’s environmental convictions, the state of green technology, and the evolution of energy policy in the U.S. A condensed version of our conversation follows; watch Gristmill for the full transcript, published in installments.
Over the past few years, the environmental movement has been in a period of self-flagellation about its ineffectiveness on the biggest issue of our time: climate change. You’ve been on both sides of the NGO/government divide. Do you have any words of wisdom on what environmental groups could do better?
The chamber of commerce, the oil companies, the big interests, are very well organized. They speak with one voice. When they come in, there’s rarely any dissension. Environmental groups are too honest. They’re nuanced. They each come in and say, here’s the best way to do it … and that allows their opponents to fracture and marginalize them. It makes it harder for policy leaders to say, OK, the enviros want this. Therefore let’s try to move in that direction, or at least balance in the middle. They don’t know where the middle is.
On the climate-change issue in particular, the mistake most environmental groups are making is going to Washington and looking for the national solution first. In the United States, we’re so big — the way we use energy and emit greenhouse gases is so different from one part of the country to another — to come up with a national solution right out of the box is going to be very hard and very complex. If you let some of these state and regional solutions percolate up and get some success, you can build on them and allow for some flexibility and adaptation.
Are you trying to export California’s model because you think it’s the best way to go about it, or just because it’s there, available to copy?
It’s not one size fits all. Things can be very different in other states and other regions. But it’s the process: starting out understanding what your state has got to do to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. We didn’t just pick our targets out of the air. We went to academics and [asked for their analysis]. It was a needs assessment, and not just, “what can we do politically?” So we’re recommending that other states do that.
The second thing we did is say, let’s understand what our inventory is. We had pretty good knowledge of emissions from the utilities sector, but it was poor in terms of the agriculture sector, the cement sector, etc. We had to sharpen our inventory to actually start imposing things and knowing if they work. We’re encouraging other states to use some of the technical assets out there in the nonprofit and academic world to help them do robust inventories.
The next thing to do is plan. If you’ve got targets and you know who the emitters are, you can create a plan for how to get those emitters to reduce over a period of time. You take the menu of ways of getting your reductions and put it on the table with the best science and the best experience from other places, and say OK, let’s make a plan.
It’s those various steps we’re trying to help other states work through: Let us demystify this for you. Let us bring in the technical expertise. We can show you how it worked or didn’t for us. We can give you sample executive orders, sample legislation. It’s a Chinese menu.
Are your hopes high for the new Democratic Congress?
My hopes are high, but not — what was the term Alan Greenspan used? — irrationally exuberant, in part because we still have a president who doesn’t get any of this and can veto any legislation he doesn’t like.
He can finally get that veto pen out.
I expect he’ll use it a lot if the Democrats overplay their hand. They might, just for politics, force him to veto stuff to show the Republicans as being out of step leading into 2008. But you’ve got to remember that even though the Democrats now have a majority, there are a lot of business Democrats in there who are going to want to, especially on climate change, approach things fairly cautiously.
John McCain (R-Ariz.) has gotten quite a bit of credit for bucking his party on climate change, at least in supporting the fairly moderate McCain-Lieberman bill. How sincere are he and some of the other Republicans who have broken on this issue?
I don’t know him personally, but from what I’ve heard he is sincere about it. It’s sincerely felt in the case of Arnold, who’s obviously a moderate Republican. [New York Gov. George] Pataki started the [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] project in the Northeast. There certainly are some Republicans who have demonstrated that they get these issues and want to do something.
You’re a big supporter of hydrogen, which is a storage medium for electrical energy. Moving our transportation infrastructure to hydrogen means off-loading the power burden from oil and liquid fuels to electricity sources — predominantly natural gas and coal. How is that an environmental gain, to go from oil to coal?
It isn’t, but that’s a false choice. There are lots of other ways we get hydrogen that are a lot more efficient, cheaper, and more environmentally benign. Every city that’s got a sewage treatment plant vents hydrogen and often methane into the atmosphere. And there’s a lot of hydrogen in the sewage water they release … there’s enough water dumped from Los Angeles sewage treatment plants alone to power the entire U.S. transportation fleet on hydrogen. Of course you need the electricity, or some other way of breaking hydrogen out of the water. But … we have a long way to go to exhaust supplies of clean hydrogen before we would ever have to consider coal.
I really hate this discussion, to be honest — it’s vilifying one at the expense of the other, and my whole message is we’ve got to get all these technologies improved. Collectively, they can displace petroleum. That’s the enemy. The enemy is not hydrogen or coal or the electric grid or the electric car or this or that. The enemy, in my view, is petroleum. There’s nothing that has caused more damage to our society, to our health, to our politics, to our values as Americans, to every single thing we value in this world than petroleum. Whatever you can name as second is so far behind it’s not even worth mentioning.
Even coal. I mean, as devastating as mountaintop mining is in Kentucky, and the emissions, we’re not in foreign countries killing people and creating entire generations of people who hate us and want to fly airplanes into our buildings over a ton of coal.
The American Petroleum Institute came out with an estimate that to build a sufficiently robust fueling network for hydrogen would take about $140 billion nationwide. $140 billion — is that the amount we spent in Iraq in the first 14 months?
In the last five minutes.
A lot of people disputed that number — Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute and others — but let’s assume you go with what the American Petroleum Institute says. We could have paid for that many, many, many times over with what we give in subsidies to the oil industry today, not to mention the cost of the war in Iraq.
You say pretty openly that Iraq and a good chunk of our defense spending — about half total federal expenditures now — is about oil. Not very long ago that was written off as a hysterical lefty conspiracy theory.
Certainly with respect to Iraq, as the excuses get peeled away one by one, even people who wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt have got to say, either the guy’s an incompetent moron, which may be true, or he’s been lying, which is probably true.
It turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction, and [Saddam Hussein] certainly didn’t present any clear and present danger to us. Yeah, he [was] a bad guy, but this notion that we’re going to give them democracy and the country will be Kansas overnight — that certainly hasn’t been true. The bottom line is, there’s lots of other bad people in this world doing bad things to their citizens — look at Darfur. It’s just fascinating that the only places where we decide to bully the world and unilaterally send our troops are the places with oil.
The president himself said, as he was planning the invasion, the first concern was securing the oil. The second concern was securing food for potential refugees. [He has argued against withdrawal and said] we’d be giving the terrorists the oil. So I’m not making this up. I’m not seeing conspiracies behind every bush, pardon the pun. It’s fairly open public policy, and it costs.
There’s lots of talk these days about a new green coalition. But it seems to me there’s tension between the energy-independence line and the global-warming line. We could become energy independent without slowing down global warming — we could shift to coal, or even to renewables, but it doesn’t help get India or China on board with emissions reductions.
Or Texas. Texas is now in the same league as India or China.
How do you see those tensions playing out?
There are some fissures. But there are also opportunities. The religious groups are not only responding to a patriotic call to action, but the notion that we’re destroying what they see as God’s creation. The unions don’t see a lot of union jobs digging coal out of the ground and turning it into electricity, but they do see a lot of jobs building windmills and installing solar panels — high-paying, sustainable jobs. There are ways to leverage that positive momentum, even from groups that may not put the environmental concern first.
Bush’s token response to global warming is to argue for clean coal and nuclear power. To the extent he’s involved in any international discussion, it’s the Pacific pact, a trade deal with emerging markets for old coal and nuclear technology.
Bush jumps in a long list of presidents of both parties who have not been able to deal with the [nuclear] waste issue in any meaningful fashion. And talk about a subsidized industry! Once upon a time we thought it would be too cheap to meter, and now we understand that it’s an enormous cost.
If you were emperor for a day — or just president of the U.S. — what would your international approach be?
Number one is to lead by example. When Tony Blair came and sat down with Arnold and me before the [California climate-change summit in July], he took us aside and said, “Look, what you are doing in California is so crucial.”
When he hosted the G8 in 2005 — whoever’s the president of the G8 can pick two topics, and he picked Africa and global warming. On global warming, he added the G8 plus five, the five emerging economies: China, India, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. They have no obligations under Kyoto until 2012, if then. The No. 1 thing they kept saying is, “Why should we bother when the United States isn’t even doing anything?” Blair said, “I was able to say to them, wait a minute, the United States is doing something, it’s just not at the federal level. It’s California.”
He said, “I can only say ‘look at California’ for so long. At some point they’re going to say, ‘The United States is more than California.’ I’m imploring you to get other states to do what California has done.” Arnold looked at me and laughed and said, “How much did you pay him to say that?” Because Arnold and I had been cooking up this notion of Johnny Appleseeding California’s plan just a month earlier — for me to leave government and start going around and helping other states to do this. Blair looked at us like we were on crack. We had to explain, “We’re trying to build a de facto national climate plan one state at a time.”
It’s sad that Blair leveraged his reputation and national treasure for a relationship with Bush, and is tacitly admitting he has no leverage to show for it.
Look, the U.S. is a country that has spent 200 years giving foreign aid for all kinds of auspicious purposes. Now we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars sending our army around the world to defend our oil. Why couldn’t we take a fraction of those resources and go to [developing] countries and say, “We’ll help you. We’ll build a trading system where companies can buy carbon credits by shutting down a coal-fired plant in China and replacing it with something that’s more energy-efficient and sustainable. We’ll figure out market-based incentives and direct gifts to help you help yourselves.”
By the way, when we talk about the United States as 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its CO2 emissions … I think we’re 50 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. Why is it that China is building 1,000 megawatts of coal-fired power plants a week? It’s to make factories to make plastic flamingos to sell in Wal-Mart. On top of that, we’re exporting our culture to them. We’re exporting this culture in our movies and our TV and our advertising, with our car companies saying it’s not enough to just have a car … go out and have an SUV just like your American counterpart.
When you take all of that collectively, I think we are directly or indirectly responsible for at least 50 percent of the world’s emissions. It’s incumbent upon us to lead by example, and then help others do better.