Obama threw his green supporters a bone today with his new climate action plan, outlined in a speech at Georgetown and available to read here. His speech was pretty dull, as these things usually are, so we’ve done you the favor of pulling out the most interesting bits. Here’s what you need to know.
We hoped Obama might moderate his green ambitions in the face of the shift in the climate change discussion. Global warming has slowed significantly in recent years, and we’re gradually learning just how feeble our understanding of our planet’s climate is. Given this uncertainty, emulating Europe by pushing through growth-constricting green policies to meet targets based on fallible climate models would be a huge mistake. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t mention any of this in his speech, instead insisting that the science is settled.
Despite this, his plan contained many sensible, incremental steps towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, including fuel economy and energy efficiency standards,cutting out emissions of HFCs, and embracing natural gas and renewable energy. But there are a few key parts of Obama’s plan that have us worried.
First, the most contentious—and most important—part of Obama’s new plan is the requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate the carbon emissions of both new and existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling requires the EPA to regulate carbon emissions if they pose a threat to public health, and the EPA has used this ruling to put together regulations on new power plants. Obama’s executive order will force the EPA to extend these carbon emissions rules to existing plants as well, which could potentially cut American carbon emissions by a significant amount.
The coal industry is up in arms over this (and will surely be challenging it in court), because coal-fired power plants have little capacity to reduce emissions. Carbon capture and storage systems, “clean” coal’s only real hope, are still fledgling technologies not ready for primetime. So while we don’t yet know the details of the EPA’s regulations, we can expect many coal plant closings. The devil will be in those details; shale gas is already replacing coal in power plants, but if the EPA’s rules are too onerous, we could strain our electricity supply.
There’s a sweet spot to strike here, but we’re not confident that the EPA can find it. After all, the EPA was unable to meet its own deadline to come up with regulations for new plants. It has until next summer to come up with its plan. Let’s hope it gets its act together this time around.
Second, Obama threw in a surprise mention of the Keystone XL pipeline approval process, saying that his administration would not rubber-stamp the project unless it could demonstrate that, in doing so, it would not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. We can only speculate on what this might mean for the project, but it’s worth remembering that the benefits of the pipeline outweigh its costs.
Finally, there are some other assorted parts of the plan that we’re not crazy about: an acceleration of permitting for private wind and solar farms on public land, a renewed commitment to the thoroughly broken Renewable Fuel Standard, and a promise to source 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity needs from renewable sources. But given what we’ve come to expect from any policy with the word “climate” or “green” in front of it, this could have been much worse.