Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton “doesn’t trust” the science that says human activity — largely the burning of fossil fuels — is warming the planet, but also thinks the issue doesn’t have anything to do with his agency.
“I don’t think the DEP is in the climate change business,” Caperton said last week. “I don’t think there is any legislation out there that says we are in charge of climate change.”
Caperton made his remarks during a public meeting Monday in Morgantown hosted by the local Sierra Club and the West Virginia University Student Sierra Coalition, according to an audio recording of the event.
A former coal executive and energy industry consultant, Caperton holds a degree in mining engineering from Virginia Tech and a law degree from the WVU College of Law.
In January he was appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to run the DEP. On orders from the governor’s office, Caperton has refused interview requests from the Gazette-Mail.
During a question-and-answer session at the Morgantown meeting, Caperton was asked to discuss his understanding of climate change and how it impacts West Virginia, and what efforts the DEP makes to deal with the issue or to encourage the use of clean, renewable energy.
“I have personally mixed emotions about climate change and the science it’s based upon,” Caperton responded. “I don’t trust any report that’s written by 1,000 people.”
Caperton did not specify, or elaborate on what exactly he doesn’t trust, but he may have been referring to periodic reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a large collection of scientific experts that acts under the auspices of the United Nations.
The IPCC has said the warming of the planet is “unequivocal,” citing evidence that includes temperature measurements, melting glaciers, declining sea ice and increased concentrations of greenhouse gases. Scientists around the world say drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions — including from coal-fired power plants — are urgently needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Caperton, though, said, “I don’t really think that that’s an issue for the DEP to undertake. That’s a global issue, and as I say, a legislative issue more than it is an executive issue for the DEP.”
West Virginia law, though, actually sends the DEP some mixed messages about the agency’s role in any regulatory response to climate change.
One state law, dating back to the early 1990s, prohibits the DEP from putting in place any rules aimed at implementing the greenhouse gas reductions outlined in the international treaty called the Kyoto Protocol.
Another section of state law requires the DEP to set up a program for industry in West Virginia to report to the state on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions from their facilities. In 2012, though, the DEP repealed its own rule outlining how that program would work.
A third section of state law spells out the DEP’s role in implementation of a state program under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Among other things under that section of law, the DEP produced a report discussing the feasibility for West Virginia of complying with the Obama program.
The Clean Power Plan is currently on hold pending resolution of a court challenge by, among others, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. President Donald Trump has promised to repeal the program.
Later during the Morgantown program, Caperton was pressed to explain exactly what his mixed feelings were about climate change and to clearly state his stance on the issue.
“I don’t have a clear stance,” Caperton said. “That’s the bad thing about being an attorney. I can read the literature on both sides of it, and I just don’t have a clear stance on it. And I don’t think in my particular position that it’s a requirement that I have a stance on global warming. I don’t think it really has anything to do with my job whatsoever.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at
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