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Pete Buttigieg And Michael Regan On What The Infrastructure Deal Does For The Climate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, about 2% of new U.S. car sales are electric vehicles. By 2030, President Biden wants that portion to be 50%. That goal is all part of a new executive order released today. The Biden administration also announced stricter emissions and fuel economy standards for gas cars. Meanwhile, the massive infrastructure package the Senate's now considering sets aside money for electric vehicle charging stations, for zero-emissions buses and for public transit, meaning right now, there's a lot of alignment between the president's agenda on climate change and his agenda on transportation.

Earlier today, I spoke with the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan live on Twitter Spaces. Of course, not everything the president proposed will actually make it through Congress, so I asked them what they wished had made it into the infrastructure bill but didn't.

MICHAEL REGAN: You know, I think what we were aiming for to be in this bill is still in the bill. They may not be at the scale of the president's original vision, but we are trending in the right direction to make the historic investments that the president has intended.

CHANG: OK, let me turn to you, Secretary Buttigieg. According to Regan, everything that you guys ever dreamed of is in this bill, but just not as much as you wanted. Is that how you would characterize it? Or is there something that's missing from this bill that you would have liked to see had you guys been able to be as ambitious as President Biden was going into this?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, if you look across the transportation categories, obviously it varies from one line item to the next. But basically, we're coming in around two-thirds of what the president originally proposed, which is why we continue to be on an order of magnitude here that is historic in many ways, era-defining. Of course, it's not the last or the only word on provisions that are going to make a big difference for our climate. We're enthusiastic about what emerged here.

CHANG: Well, let's turn now to these new announcements from the president. We're talking about stricter fuel efficiency and emission standards for cars. It rolls back the previous administration's targets. Some of this is based on a deal that California made with some automakers to voluntarily adopt something like 3.7% annual improvements in fuel economy and emission standards for the next few years. Let me ask you, is that really enough to significantly slow down climate change?

REGAN: Well, I think what we're proposing will be a more stringent approach based on sound science to reduce the emissions at the rate that we need to for vehicles 2023 through to 2026.

BUTTIGIEG: We're building to an 8% standard of improvement. So it doesn't take long before the math gets convoluted because there's this framework that was driven by California that's basically in effect for the immediate model years here. But we are upping the ambition in a big way.

CHANG: OK. Well, I want to also talk about the electric vehicle goal here. We're talking about half of all new car sales being electric car sales by 2030. Right now, electric cars are generally more expensive. They're less available. How do you plan to persuade people to buy more expensive cars in just the next few years?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, they've got to get less expensive. And part of how you do that is through economies of scale. So by driving the kinds of improvements that these standards encourage, that leads to these vehicles becoming less and less expensive and I think eventually becoming a clear financial winner. You add to that the fuel savings where, depending on the vehicle, depending on your driving patterns, you're going to be capturing an economic benefit.

Another area, of course, is to make them less expensive. That's what the tax credits have done historically. And that's an area for future policy. It will also be up to the makers of these cars to communicate why they are superior and get people to test drive them.

CHANG: Well, it's not only going to take lots and lots of electric vehicles. We have to lower emissions across the grid to get any meaningful change on climate change. So there's been a lot of criticism, particularly from environmental activists, that this infrastructure bill, if I can pivot back to the bill, that this bill is a little too much status quo, meaning it invests in existing infrastructure in fossil fuel industries, for example. How fair of a criticism is that, you think, that this bill is more about maintaining the world as it is rather than moving into a truly new one?

REGAN: You know, I would say that we have to stay focused on the fact that these investments are historic. We have regulatory and statutory authority within all of our agencies to pursue aggressive climate goals. We have the bipartisan infrastructure deal. The budget requested by the president for EPA is over a 20% increase. Those resources will also be put towards climate mitigation as well as adaptation.

So these are historic investments. When the president pledged to build back better, I would say that he has not backed off of his ambitious climate and air quality and environmental justice agenda. And we're excited to see his leadership in these areas.

CHANG: I want to wrap with one last question, a bit of a philosophical question. You know, so much of environmentalism in the past decades was about stopping things from getting built - right? - like making sure that construction didn't hurt the environment. But now it feels like we're in this new era where dealing with climate change is actually about building new stuff. And I'm curious, do you think the environmental activist community is making that shift with you and going along with policies and proposals like the ones we've been talking about today to build more stuff?

REGAN: You know, I'll take that and then turn it over to Secretary Buttigieg. But I believe what they're really looking for is a seat at the table. Historically, the business community and others have always dominated the stakeholder process. So I believe that we can find efficiencies in the system, bringing all people to the table so that we can build and invest in the infrastructure that the president is promoting.

CHANG: Secretary Buttigieg, last words?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I love this question, and I love this thought. I think the way forward is about adding and subtracting. Sometimes that means removing things that caused harm, like a highway that was deliberately routed straight through a Black neighborhood in a way that tore it apart. Other times, it means adding something new. The electric vehicles that we're discussing today is a great example of that. That's about the right combination of yes's and no's that is empowering for people who have been left out in the past and that is positioning America to truly lead the world in what it actually looks like to have a sustainable climate-forward economy.

CHANG: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg judge and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, thank you very much to both of you for spending so much time with us today.

BUTTIGIEG: Great to be with you.

REGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.