January 01, 2013

Interview: Vickie Patton

Milo Mason

Vickie Patton is the General Counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund and leads the organization’s national clean air initiatives. For more than two decades, she has worked to protect human health and the environment from air pollution. She is the recipient of the Air & Waste Management Association’s Richard Beatty Mellon Environmental Stewardship Award, the Wirth Chair Award for Creative Collaborations in Sustainability (co-recipient), and the Healthy Community Award received from her local health department. She is the mother of Sandra and Grant and a member of the Moms Clean Air Force.

NR&E: Ms. Patton, you’re General Counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Could you tell me about EDF? What do you do and what’s your mission?

Patton: The EDF is a national environmental organization focused on forging solutions to address the most serious challenges facing human health and the environment. That includes the race against time in addressing the climate crisis through a variety of important clean energy solutions. We are committed to protecting human health and one of our priorities is securing legislation to overhaul and improve the nation’s laws to protect Americans against toxic chemicals. We are committed to working to protect the health and vitality of our fisheries and oceans, both in our own country and in other parts of the world. We are undertaking extensive work to restore wildlife and biodiversity through conservation incentives on working lands. We have offices from Bentonville to Beijing and we are committed to working on the issues that we think are most critical in protecting human health and environment and doing so wherever that leads us.

More than twenty years ago, EDF went to China, focused on what we could do to address China’s compelling public health and environmental challenges, working along with the Chinese people. That included opening an office in Beijing and working on, among other things, the serious air pollution problems in China. EDF has more than 400 staff working in our own country and worldwide.

NR&E: How did the EDF get started? I read on your website that it’s as a scientific effort.

Patton: One of our core areas of emphasis is science, and our work is firmly anchored in science. We have more PhD scientists than any other national environmental organization. It’s an essential part of our identity. We were formed in the 1960s by scientists who were deeply concerned about the serious impacts associated with the widespread application of pesticides. Our founders recognized some serious problems and came together to try to solve them. Progress is fundamentally achieved by people who recognize that there’s a problem and work together to address it. The leadership of Assemblywoman Fran Pavley was pivotal in crafting and enacting a landmark law requiring California to address the carbon pollution from its cars in the same way it had long led the country in addressing tailpipe pollution that contributed to harmful levels of ozone smog and particulate pollution. The history of environmental law and policy is replete with people identifying problems and working together to solve them, and that is, in essence, the genesis of EDF.

NR&E: EDF’s been at the forefront of many of the environmental efforts in the United States and now the world. Is it a membership organization? If so, how many members do you have?

Patton: EDF is a membership organization, and we are very grateful for the engagement and support of our members . We have more than 750,000 members nationwide, and that’s grown from just a few in the late 1960s. We have a large network of engaged members who actively address major national and local environmental problems through e-Activism, and we greatly appreciate their engagement.

NR&E: EDF’s website tells about a lot of partnerships and collaboration with industry that’s short of litigation. Can you talk about that?

Patton: Our collaborations are far reaching and big challenges can’t get addressed without people working together. We partner with a number of other environmental organizations from national to local, we are allied with public health associations, we partner with moms across our nation in fighting for cleaner air for our children and all children, and we also work with those in the business community who are willing to be leaders. We have a terrific program, for example, that has grown from just a few graduate students a few years ago to nearly a hundred this past summer. There were 97 Climate Corps interns, and that program is emblematic of EDF’s philosophy in many ways. This past summer 97 Climate Corps interns were placed in a number of organizations and institutions across the country, from Fortune 500 companies to municipal housing authorities. They work in those institutions to identify the ways in which those organizations can harvest energy efficiency. At the end of the summer they produce a set of recommendations documenting opportunities for those organizations to save money and reduce pollution through more efficient use of their electricity.

NR&E: Did an EDF intern think up painting the rooftops of buildings in New York City white?

Patton: No but the Climate Corps program is well designed to ensure smart recommendations are deployed and do not sit on a shelf

NR&E: They need to be practical . . .

Patton: And they need to be carried out. So a Climate Corps partnership with EDF necessarily requires a commitment to carry out the smart recommendations. And more than 85 percent of the measures are carried out and the emissions reductions achieved. The savings have been tremendous in terms of cost. The program demonstrates through real world examples that our country can reduce pollution and save money at the same time. It also means that there is a large and growing set of graduate students with MBAs across America who have a keen, animated understanding of the economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency.

NR&E: And bringing science and technology to that sustainability. A year or two ago the president of EDF wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times saying EDF doesn’t take contributions from corporations. Were you involved in that and what was the background of that letter?

Patton: It is EDF policy not to accept money from the companies that we partner with, companies that are in litigation with EDF or any major industrial emitters. A number of individuals and foundations are generous in supporting our work and we are very grateful for that. We have to be good stewards of those resources and deploy them in the most impactful way we can. We’re accountable for those dollars both in making sure that we spend them wisely to carry out our work and also that we secure results.

NR&E: There’s bang for the buck at EDF . . .

Patton: Absolutely.

NR&E: How did you get to be General Counsel of EDF?

Patton: I started working at the Environmental Protection Agency in September of 1990 right out of law school and had the incredible privilege of working on both the development and implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. I have dedicated most of my adult life to working on clean air issues, from local pollution issues to state and national policies and it’s been amazing. I started at Environmental Defense Fund about 15 years ago. And . . .

NR&E: . . . you just moved up the ladder from staff attorney . . .

Patton: I did. And it’s wonderful to work on these compelling issues with dedicated, bright, and talented colleagues. That is a great gift.

NR&E: And how many lawyers does EDF have?

Patton: We have more than 40 attorneys with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. One of the initiatives we’ve had over the past few of years is finding ways that we can foster more collaboration among our attorneys who are oftentimes working on a wide variety of different issues.

NR&E: I heard you at the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources Fall Meeting, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to have the opportunity to interview you. You said there are ways for Congress to come together and find consensus or bipartisanship in environmental law, yet we’ve had ten, twenty, twenty-five years of gridlock up on the Hill and a lot of the just robotic reauthorizations and efforts. Tell me what you had in mind. You couldn’t go into much detail at that meeting.

Patton: Well, one of the things I think that panel discussion highlighted is just how divided our rhetoric has become. Unfortunately, there was a sharply polarizing, divisive rhetoric and tone by one of the panelists. The past Congress began with a curtain raiser in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in December of 2010 by Congressman Fred Upton who had been designated to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He wrote in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that EPA was engaged in an unconstitutional power grab in its efforts to address climate destabilizing pollution. That kind of rhetoric is just deeply flawed and it divides our country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., actually looked at the very issues that Congressman Upton was addressing in that op-ed. The litigation spanned two-and-a-half years. More than 100 parties threw every possible claim at the Environmental Protection Agency’s first generation climate protections for our nation. The three-judge panel found that EPA’s interpretation of the law was “unambiguously correct.” Chief Judge David Sentelle, then Chief of the D.C. Circuit, was on that panel. Judge Sentelle was appointed to the bench by President Reagan after Reagan elevated Antonin Scalia to the High Court. And so there was a serious dichotomy for the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to claim that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is engaged in an unconstitutional power grab when in fact the second highest court in the land scrutinized EPA’s actions and found that its interpretation of the law was “unambiguously correct.” It is emblematic of how divided and how polarizing our political rhetoric has become. We’ve got to fix that.

NR&E: So how do you fix it? Or bridge that divide?

Patton: I began my career at the Environmental Protection Agency in September of 1990 and at the time the country was debating an overhaul of the Clean Air Act. Ultimately the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were signed into law by President Bush on November 15, 1990 and I had this naïve sense that this historic action happened with some regularity. We need to be able to discuss these compelling issues in a way that is rigorous, that is thoughtful, and that solves some big, urgent problems. And we need to take action. One opportunity that we have right now is to work together as a nation in addressing the most toxic chemicals. And so there is an effort, a bipartisan effort to examine legislative revisions that strengthen and improve TSCA. Americans will continue to be deeply concerned about the toxic chemicals in the products we use until Congress improves the Toxic Substances Control Act giving Americans the confidence that the products we use are subject to rigorous chemical screening and full-human-health safeguards , and we’re not exposing our families and our children to toxic chemicals. And so that’s an area where there is some bipartisan discussion underway and where we need Congress to lead in addressing America’s exposures to toxic chemicals. There are just vast numbers of toxic chemicals that are never tested and never examined, and we need to do better as a nation in addressing that. Similarly, the RESTORE Act was enacted in the last Congress with bipartisan support and was the product of effective collaboration.

NR&E: There’s such a dichotomy up on the Hill, not only on economics but also the science . . .

Patton: In the context of toxic chemicals, science is foundational both to help us understand the serious risks and to also help our nation more effectively screen for toxic contaminants. One of the great areas of progress in protecting public health and environment has been the advances in technology that help us meet big challenges. There were many people who claimed that the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments would create problems because the technologies weren’t available to meet the requirements of the law. When you look back at what the nation has accomplished under the Clean Air Act, it is quite compelling that for every dollar the nation has invested in clean air, we’ve achieved public health protections that are worth at least $30. That’s an impressive return on investment for the American people, and it’s been achieved through advances in technology. About a year ago the Administrator, Lisa Jackson, finalized the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards for the nation’s fleet of power plants. The national standards were preceded by a long debate that our nation couldn’t at all control mercury from coal-fired power plants. And, in fact, we’re doing it, and we’re doing it at a small fraction of the costs that were predicted, and we’re doing it with made-in-America technology. There are U.S. companies that have pioneered the clean mercury technology that is not only reducing mercury from our own high-polluting coal plants but also will be deployed to reduce mercury from coal-fired power plants across the world. A decade ago major power companies and many of our policymakers said our nation couldn’t control mercury from coal-fired power plants, and yet we’re doing it, cost effectively, today.

NR&E: Well, there was an old saying when I grew up that I often heard – you can lead a horse to beautiful water in this non-toxic world, but how do you make them drink? How do you get the Congressional votes to do this or form a consensus that we need?

Patton: One of the initiatives at EDF in the past few years has been to partner with a group called Mom’s Clean Air Force. In a very short time the organization has grown from one very eloquent committed mom—Dominique Browning, the founder—to more than 100,000 moms across America, united by the common values that we all share in securing a cleaner, healthier environment for our children. It includes military moms in Ohio, conservative Christian moms in the south, i Latina moms in California, all working across America to say to policymakers, 1) we care deeply about clean air for our children, for our communities, and 2) we expect you, policymakers, to do the same and to get past this partisanship and get past this polarization and focus on what we, as Americans, care about fundamentally. You know, when you’re a mom and you are tucking your child into bed at night, you are just overwhelmed with hopes and fears. And your hope is that you can do everything within your power to provide a safe, secure environment for your child and for all children. And Mom’s Clean Air Force reminds us that those are just basic, shared American values.

NR&E: But when more than 50 percent of the House of Representatives don’t believe that greenhouse gas emissions affect our human environment, how do you get the votes? Sorry to keep going back to that bottom line . . . please tell me there’s a magic wand.

Patton: There is no magic wand and, unfortunately, there are serious naysayers and obstructionists. But there are also vitally important climate security policies that are being forged by people working together to address climate pollution. So if you look at the clean car standards that were finalized by the President in August 2012, those standards just demonstrate so manifestly that we can reduce climate pollution at the same time we can help break our dependence on oil.

NR&E: Sure, but that was administratively.

Patton: It was administrative, and there’s quite important progress we can achieve administratively and a lot we just urgently need to continue to do administratively. It is a race against time to address the climate crisis. The costs of a changing climate are so high. If you look at Hurricane Sandy and extreme weather that has afflicted our country, you see that the costs of no action are profound. We need all hands on deck to address this problem, and that means pressing ahead with the smart and critically important administrative solutions including limiting the carbon pollution from power plants, stopping the methane leaked and vented from oil and gas production, and financing job creating energy efficiency measures in our schools nationwide through a revenue-neutral clean energy bank and reprogramming the electricity cost savings to improve our children’s education.

NR&E: Back to EDF, how do you decide on when you litigate, when you take cases to court? How many active cases does EDF have right now, and what’s the analysis or calculus that you go through before resorting to court?

Patton: Our litigation is aligned with our programmatic priorities, and it’s also anchored in results. So, we examine a public health or an environmental problem through a multidisciplinary lens and we try to think carefully about what’s going to be most impactful in making progress and achieving results. And that might entail some rigorous scientific analysis, that might mean coming up with an innovative solution, and that might mean litigation. We try to be clear-eyed about what we think will make a difference and then deploy the most impactful strategy. Sometimes it’s several tools in a tool kit that we’ll deploy. In the last few years, our litigation docket has been heavily focused on climate, clean air, and clean energy because of the urgent need to address the climate crisis. We’ve got to make as much progress as we possibly can in the face of the grim climate science. Right now we are actively engaged in defending California’s landmark climate protection measures against a variety of legal challenges. We’re doing the same in terms of the climate leadership that the Environmental Protection Agency has provided under the nation’s clean air laws. Some of those policies are just critically important, and we want to be in court, with others, defending them.

NR&E: Is half of your litigation load intervention?

Patton: In the last few years a significant portion of our litigation docket has encompassed intervening on behalf of respondent EPA to help defend major climate and clean air policies. We have allies in this effort, and oftentimes those allies are quite varied. It includes a number of states and municipalities and some forward-leading businesses, as well as public health organizations like the American Lung Association.

NR&E: And you’re on the forefront of outreach of getting that coalescence of community toward a goal. So what role do you play in deciding thumbs up or thumbs down on litigation? Is it a Board of Directors that decides, or who has the final word about it?

Patton: So we decide these issues both with the people who head our programmatic work and the staff and the policy experts, including the staff that are on the ground with their sleeves rolled up, engaged in these problems, trying to fix them. EDF’s executive team also has a key role, as does an advisory committee composed of leading environmental law experts.

The important progress over the past year has included legal action to defend landmark policies to protect the nation’s fisheries. There has been a legal challenge to the Gulf Coast Catch Shares program, to the New England Catch Shares program, and to the Pacific Catch Shares program, and each of those frontal legal challenges has been rejected. And so these cases have been quite important in putting into place and defending policies that will help restore our nation’s fisheries and ensure that we have healthy fisheries to feed our country.

NR&E: Sustainability through science?

Patton: It’s a combination of innovative solutions and careful science all anchored in law. There have been a number of recent studies documenting the resurgence and revitalization of some of these fisheries. We have worked with fishermen who originally opposed these measures and now laud their efficacy.

NR&E: Again, how do you agree on science? How do you reach those people who have their own minds made up on the science?

Patton: There’s just an extraordinary body of science that demonstrates that we are facing peril if we don’t address climate pollution in our country and across the world. EPA’s determination that six greenhouse gasses endanger human health and welfare . . . was issued in December of 2009, and it was litigated for two-and-a-half years. And in that litigation the State of Texas, together with others, made every possible claim they could to attack that science, and the court emphatically rejected those claims across the board. The science that EPA relied on was thousands and thousands of studies, synthesis from our nation’s leading scientific experts, and hundreds and hundreds of studies from organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The science is manifest and compelling. Climate change is a clear and present danger. On that fall panel at the ABA meeting, I think what was revealing was that the official from Texas didn’t agree with seemingly any science—it was an attack on science, a disdain for science.

NR&E: And I was sitting there in the audience thinking maybe the only thing that will convince him about climate science will be his insurance rates, which will go up for insuring anything for damage. Because there’s going to be more extreme weather and more hurricanes and damage. Insurance costs in the private sector may be when some of the people realize climate change is happening.

Patton: But the science that speaker was disavowing encompassed everything from the vast volume of epidemiological studies and clinical studies that document that air pollution causes harm. He essentially disavowed the thousands of scientific studies that tell us that climate change is a clear and present danger to public health and welfare. So there was just a kind of across-the-board disavowal of science, and I think that’s a serious problem.

NR&E: But it seems that a majority in the Congress right now is thinking the same way . . .

Patton: So one of the areas where I think there is going to be progress in the new Congress is in addressing toxic chemicals, and I think there’s a strong consensus across America that we need to do a better job protecting Americans from the toxic chemicals in our products. We also need to move ahead and do everything we can as a country in addressing the climate crisis and that can happen under existing law. And it’s the policies that EPA’s put in place under the nation’s clean air laws, it’s the energy efficiency standards that the Department of Energy has issued, it’s the critical work that our own scientists continue to do documenting the serious threat to our nation’s well-being and prosperity. And all of those things need to continue. The solutions that can be put in place to address the largest sources of climate pollution in our country are solutions that are at hand. And we’ve got to deploy those solutions, and we’ve also got to continue to engage Americans in the conversation about science and the extraordinary human and economic costs if we fail to act.

And public opinion is changing. It’s changing before our very eyes. Americans are witnessing extreme weather that is unfolding all around us. It is changing public opinion. It’s also that we’re seeing the heavy, heavy toll that extreme weather and a changing climate imposes on Americans’ lives and our economy. It is a profound set of impacts, and we can move forward now under existing law. EPA has the authority and the solutions to address carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants, one of the single largest sources of carbon pollution in our nation, if not the planet. And the agency has the responsibility to take action and to take action now. The solutions are at hand. There are climate accelerants that are wreaking havoc with our climate and we can work together as a country to arrest those climate accelerants. That’s critical work, to address the methane that’s leaking and being emitted from oil and gas development across America. The methane has very serious consequences in destabilizing our climate and methane is a product. If we swiftly address the leaks and discharges of methane, we’re saving companies money and being much better stewards of our energy.

NR&E: Can they capture that methane and the emissions?

Patton: They capture the methane.

NR&E: . . . and sell it?


Patton: Yes. It’s a quintessential example of a win–win and the imperative to overcome the barriers, getting companies to put in place the proven solutions that we know can address the methane leaks and the discharges into the atmosphere. It’s a potent greenhouse gas, and it’s happening before our very eyes from the the Bakken field in North Dakota to the Eagle Ford in Texas. It is one of the biggest sources of climate destabilizing pollution in the United States, and we have made-in-America technology that can immediately mitigate those methane emissions.

NR&E: Are regulations in place?

Patton: They are not adequate; we’ve got to get them in place. North Dakota has regulations on the books that it doesn’t enforce. And we also have solutions that states like Wyoming and Colorado have pioneered and enforced, and we know they work.

NR&E: Any advice for aspiring attorneys that would want to go into natural resources, energy, and environmental work?

Patton: You know we need all hands on deck. We need to build this vibrant clean energy economy just as fast as we can, and we need attorneys who are working with the companies that are creating these innovative, clean energy solutions and deploying these new technologies. They’re going to solve some very big problems. We need attorneys who are partnering with the grass roots and working with those grass roots organizations that are coming up with all sorts of bold ideas about how we can do better. We need attorneys who are working in communities and neighborhoods across America to help us solve some very big problems and hasten the transition to cleaner energy and healthier air. We need attorneys enforcing our nation’s clean air, clean energy, and climate protection laws. If you think about the clean car standards, it’s incredible what they’re going to achieve for our country. They’re going to eliminate six billion tons of climate destabilizing pollution. It will be eliminated over the lives of those vehicles. They will reduce our consumption of oil by 2030, comparable to what we import from the Persian Gulf today, and they will save families money at the gas pump. This is an example of public policies that will meaningfully reduce climate pollution, save people money, and help strengthen our national security. There are lots of ways we can move forward, and we need to move forward in deploying all of those smart ideas just as quickly as we can.

NR&E: What’s your top challenge as General Counsel of EDF?

Patton: It’s to work on addressing some of the biggest public health and environmental challenges that face our country and making progress just as swiftly as we can.

NR&E: Well, then some say, “well, we can do it, but China and India won’t do it, so what good is us doing it?”

Patton: Americans are united by our solemn duty—as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and good neighbors—to provide a safe world and a stable environment for our children and for all children. And it is manifest, as the President declared, that the failure to respond to climate change “would betray our children and future generations.” Americans are innovators, and our nation has long pioneered climate and clean energy and clean air solutions that have been exported to other countries—we’ve seen that with our car technologies and catalytic converters being deployed in cars worldwide, and we will see it with mercury technology as this country has led the way in technologies capable of controlling mercury from coal-fired power plants. It will be deployed to reduce mercury in power plants across the globe. We saw it with scrubber technology when Europe took up addressing acid rain. A third of that technology was made in America. And there are far-reaching opportunities, imperatives, for our nation to be a leader in addressing the climate crisis in terms of innovation and new technology. We’ve long been at the forefront of the global economy, and we don’t want to lose that edge. Indeed, the President called on our nation to seize this opportunity, “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise.”

NR&E: Yes. Thank you, Vickie.

Patton: Thank you.

Milo Mason