The EPA Turns to Bridge Burning

Over my years as Sustainability Officer at Sun I’ve publicly given lots of credit to the EPA, primarily for their world-leading Energy Star program and for the excellent Climate Leaders program.

Boy, do I feel foolish now.

First, in my eyes they tarnished their crown jewel, Energy Star, with the politically motivated and poorly conceived Energy Star server specification (a longer, separate story that I won’t cover here). But I still felt justified in singing their praises as long as they still ran the excellent Climate Leaders program.

At Sun we relied heavily on Climate Leaders when we were starting our carbon accounting, and continued to participate due to the high quality of interaction. We used the resources and contacts to make quick headway in formalizing our program, and in actually reducing our GHG emissions. For minimal investment the EPA had itself in a valuable position with leading corporations, sitting at the center of the corporate sustainability discussion and helping to drive lower emissions throughout industry (you can see a list of the companies involved here).

Well, in the Lisa Jackson era, that proved to be too good to be true as well. Last month the EPA announced that they were suspending Climate Leaders, and with a lack of grace rarely seen even among giant, faceless bureaucracies, used the annual meeting to dash any hopes of discussing potential futures for the program.

It’s worth reading Paul Baier’s excellent write-up of this last meeting, both to see the quality and intentions of the companies involved, as well as heavy-handedness of the EPA. As Paul says:

Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, was blunt and unrelenting with Climate Leaders partners: “Our relationship with you must change.” Two things of note about this statement. First, the wording of it was apt, for instead of saying “Our relationship with companies must change”, she used “you”, leaving it open to the companies or the individuals in attendance. The truth is that the companies are not going to feel the impact of this as much as the individual sustainability leaders within those companies. These were the people who were working with the EPA and defending it within their companies and the broader community, and the Agency has decided it didn’t value the relationship.

Basically, Lisa Jackson and team just told a large group of incredibly influential and effective sustainability leaders to “F— off”.

The second point about this statement is that they accomplished their goal. I’ve already noticed a strong shift in attitude about the Agency among my former peers. I’m not currently in a corporate sustainability leadership role, but I have been in the past, and even though I wasn’t at this Climate Leaders event, just reading about it has been like a slap in the face. So I’ve learned my lesson as well: the EPA does not want to be my partner and I should act and speak accordingly.

The next obvious question is “Why?", but we can only speculate. The budget excuse they used in public seems silly due to the tiny amount of money that was spent on this, but maybe it was also a telling statement. The fact may be that the current leadership of EPA just can’t see itself spending any money to work cooperatively with business leaders.

The more paranoid view is that this was only Act I, and was laying the groundwork for an even more aggressive Act II. “Why spend money to work with them when they’re going to really hate us in 6 months?". I have absolutely no evidence for this, but given the way this was all handled its hard to see it as an isolated incident.