Speaking outdoors Tuesday at Georgetown University, President Obama announced sweeping plans to use his executive power to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and enact a “national climate action plan.” Broadly conceived as a fulfillment of his 2013 inauguration address's promise to fight climate change, Obama outlined his agenda, but he still faces serious challenges in its implementation.
The president outlined three goals in the speech: Use less “dirty energy,” use more “clean energy,” and waste less energy overall. The proposals all have the common goal of reducing the amount of carbon pollution in the atmosphere.
Much of the media focus has fallen upon two aspects of the plan. The first, an effort to cap carbon emissions on coal-fired power plants (responsible for 40% of total carbon emitted in the U.S.), was outlined in stark terms:
“So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.”
Full graphics outlining the Climate Action Plan can be seen at whitehouse.gov:
One can assume that the hundreds of antiquated coal plants in the eastern U.S. would now be required to implement the "best available retrofit technology" as required by the Clean Air Act, should the plan be enforced.
The second proposal gaining attention is a requirement of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to “not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” in order for it to gain the Obama administration's approval.
Republicans are already claiming that the State Department resolved this question with a draft Environmental Impact Statement in March. Upon examination of the numbers , this is far from the truth. As scientists and environmentalists have argued for years, Keystone XL and the development of Canadian tar sands would essentially mean “game over” for any hope of a stable climate in the near future, adding up to 150 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, on top of the current level of 400 ppm. This constitutes a doubling of pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide.
And that's not the half of the bad news on KXL, what Van Jones calls "Obama's Pipeline":
While not a new term, “carbon pollution” was repeated numerous times by the president. Many chemical compounds fall under this umbrella, with Obama specifically addressing carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons by name Tuesday.
Carbon dioxide was added to the Clean Air Act’s list of Criteria Pollutants in 2009 under the law’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In 2007, the Supreme Court declared greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to be pollutants. In the same decision, the Court gave the EPA, under direction of the executive, the power to regulate greenhouse gases.
Near the end of the speech, Obama touted the expansion of natural gas, which he rightly credits for the current reduction of carbon pollution in the U.S. to near-1990 levels. This is less a credit to natural gas, whose development leads to pollution by methane (a 20x more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), than a testament to the dirtiness of coal.
Interestingly, Obama refers to natural gas as a “medium-term” solution to the problem of climate change adding that it is a “transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.” This week on The Daily Show, the director of the documentary Gasland compared this terminology to weaning a drug addict off the stuff:
Expanding the context to international environmental agreements, Obama promoted a transition by developing nations from coal to natural gas, advocating an end to public financing of coal plants. Developing nations argue that they have a right to emit as much as the U.S. has in the industrial era. However, Obama pointed out that many developing nations are much more vulnerable to climate-change threats, incentivizing immediate action.
The president closed this portion of the speech with a somewhat rosy gloss-over of the failed U.N. climate talks of the last few years.
While environmentalists cheered the president this week, I’ll just point out that the Obama administration has expanded oil exploration and production to the highest mark in 15 years, which the president admitted Tuesday. This plays well with the center-right, as does the expansion on natural gas. Frankly, it’s good politics. But the president better prepare for court battles from all sides of these issues for the rest of his presidency.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W.Va.) said of the speech that Obama had “declared war on coal,” the natural resource that renowned climate scientist James Hansen claims is 80% of the problem when talking about climate change.
"This is not a war on coal, this is a commitment to the safety of our children," Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke replied on on the PBS Newshour.
Either way, Mr. President, you can count me in.