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Obama: The Man with a Climate Change Plan

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.

For an interesting take on some of the small-bore details of his plan that we haven’t gone into here, read our friend Michael Levi’s take over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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  • bigfire

    At this junction with all of the scandals going on, the Chosen One needs to firm up his base. This is his solution.

    • Corlyss

      Not hardly. He don’t need no stinkin’ base now that jabbering idiots have given him a second term. If he were thinking about his base, he’d be trying to help Democrats take the house and expand their stranglehold on the Senate to get done by legislation that which he is now forced to do by fiat. He ain’t doin’ any of that.
      He’s thinkin’ L-E-G-A-C-Y.

      • Alexander Scipio

        Why do you think he’s holding so many fundraisers and creating that huge database via all the social media stuff he’s illegally spying on, but to ensure a Dem takeover of the House in 2014?

        • Corlyss

          So did Nixon. He didn’t do a darn thing for Republicans running in the off years. The Party gets only some of those funds, not all of them.

  • Douglas6

    I guess growing the economy so all the unemployed college graduates can move out of mom + dad’s basement is no longer on the table, if it ever was.

    • Alexander Scipio

      Obama’s DOMESTIC goal is to shrink the economy, it is to reduce American’s power to make her just one among other nations, and he is succeeding beyond his wildest expectations. Obama’s INTERNATIONAL goal is to expand Shariah, enslaving hundreds of millions of human beings to a cult that has no respect FOR human beings – and he is doing it in the name of American, once the freest country on earth, again, succeeding beyond his wildest expecatations. He is accomplishing the expansion of Shariah (there is no alternative explanation for his foreign policy) with our tax dollars. He is doing it by ignoring the sacrifices our young men and women are making on the battlefield… and he is doing it with a military who has decided compliance with him – an obvious enemy of the Constitution – and the career advancement that comes from combat (even while losing, evidently), is more important that THEIR only Constituitiuonal duty: TO protect and defend the Constitution.

  • Corlyss

    “Global warming has slowed significantly in recent years . . . ”
    Despite the green hysterical religious nut cases claims to embrace science, they do what most non-scientific types do: they ignore the facts they don’t like. Obama is a poster boy for that.

  • Alexander Scipio

    Dr Mead disappoints in his analysis, which is unfortunate. THE most contentious issue, which Dr Mead seems also to regard as “settled,” is that the President has no authority to legislate. His job – his SOLE job – is to enforce laws passed by the People through the Representatives in Congress. Obama has, once again, stepped all over the Legislative Branch, usurped their authority and responsibility, and, with the assistance of a media that is in the tank for him and a low-information public (thanks to Dem-dominated K-12), decided his opinion – NOT that of the People who supposedly are self-governing in this Republic – is what we should, sorry – MUST – follow. This is authoritariansim, pure and simple. THIS is the story here – not Climate Change. It is a strong Executive overstepping the bounds of the office he swore to uphold, and a Legislature too weak even to be willing to try to stop him.

    • rheddles

      Obama has usurped nothing. Congress has abandoned its lawmaking responsibility for the last century. Any time it wishes Congress can reassert its authority. But the wimps in the legislature are happy to let the President make all the decisions so that they can ensure their reelection. The people seem happy with the situation as they reelect legislators with such regularity that there is greater turnover in the House of Lords.

  • SLEcoman

    Natural gas prices that new very efficient gas turbine combined cycle electric generating units (EGUs) can compete with coal (i.e. ~$3.00/MMBtu @ Henry Hub) do not appear to be sustainable for the oil/natural gas industry. As natural gas prices declined in 2011 and the first four months of 2012, natural gas rig count continued to decline. Since then, natural gas prices have more than doubled and the rig count has not increased. Thus, shifting from coal to natural gas will increase power costs, possibly significantly. In April 2013 natural gas for power generation cost $4.67/MMBtu vs. $2.37/MMBtu for coal (source EIA EPM).
    Using natural gas for power generation reduces the potential natural gas available for CNG (compressed natural gas) fueled cars and light trucks, LNG (liquified natural gas) fueled heavy trucks, and GTL (gas to liquids) projects that turn natural gas into gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel. Using our natural gas resources to reduce foreign oil imports is much more important economically and from a foreign policy point of view than chasing the chimera of the US being able to unilaterally reduce global warming.

  • Ollie’s Dad

    So the President is promising to “source 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity needs from renewable sources”. Congratulations on an excellent start.

    The next step should be to cut the federal government’s travel-based carbon footprint by 10% each year for the rest of his term. The President can lead by example by sharply reducing his travels in carbon-belching Air Force One.

    What’s that? There’s just too much important government business that these things can’t be done? Well, then, as the saying goes, “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when they behave like it’s a crisis”.

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