Obama Takes Aim at Power Plants to Slow Climate Change
Policy + Politics

Obama Takes Aim at Power Plants to Slow Climate Change

REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

President Obama will announce his intention to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, increase appliance efficiency standards and promote renewable energy development on public lands in a speech Tuesday outlining his plan to use executive powers to address climate change.

While the president has talked about the need to address global warming, using sweeping rhetoric in his second inaugural address to suggest it ranks as one of his highest priorities, he has been largely silent on how he intends to tackle the problem. In the speech at Georgetown University, according to individuals briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified because the plan was not yet public, Obama will detail a government-wide plan to not only reduce the nation’s carbon output but also prepare the United States for the near-term impacts of global warming.

They said those measures would include programs to enhance the resilience of coastal communities as well as Agriculture Department “climate adaptation hubs” that could help farmers cope with changes in temperature and precipitation.

“Taken together, these actions indicate an entirely new sense of urgency in addressing the threat climate change is posing to our economy and security,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund and a former White House climate adviser under President Bill Clinton.

Unlike his other signature second-term initiatives, such as immigration legislation, gun-control measures and entitlement reform, Obama can undertake all of these policies without congressional input. Though Congress could theoretically overturn an Environmental Protection Agency rule to regulate existing utilities under the Clean Air Act, Democrats have the votes they need in the Senate to block such an effort.

In a video announcement the White House posted Saturday afternoon, Obama highlighted the benefits of addressing global warming, saying it “is a serious challenge, but it’s one uniquely suited to America’s strengths.”

“We’ll need scientists to design new fuels and farmers to grow them,” he said. “We’ll need engineers to devise new sources of energy and businesses to make and sell them.”

But the move to impose greenhouse gas limits on existing plants — which account for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and 40 percent of its carbon emissions — will raise consumers’ electricity prices in the short term as utilities are forced to shutter aging coal plants to comply with stricter pollution limits.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, there are 1,142 coal-fired utilities in the United States and 3,967 natural-gas-fired plants, all of which would face new carbon limits under Obama’s proposal. Last year they accounted for nearly 68 percent of all electricity production, according to EEI, compared with nuclear and hydropower utilities, which made up 19 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively. All renewables combined amounted to 5.4percent of electricity generation in 2012.

Stephen Brown, vice president for government affairs for Tesoro Corp., said if Obama delivers on his promise to regulate power plants, “the administration’s war on fossil fuels is now fully joined. Apparently, this White House is willing to sacrifice the American manufacturing renaissance brought on by booming domestic energy development on the altar of climate change.”

Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean-air program, said the president can no longer afford to delay regulating existing plants, the single biggest step the administration can take to meet its global pledge of cutting the nation’s carbon output to 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

While carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants fell 13.1 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, they rose 7.1 percent the first quarter of this year as natural gas prices shot up and utilities started burning more coal. Overall, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States rose 3 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with a 4 percent drop in 2012.

The NRDC has proposed a plan for regulating existing plants that would let states use different routes to meeting federal standards, including credits for utilities that implement broad energy efficiency programs. It would also let utilities average their emissions from old plants with the zero emissions they would get from pursuing new renewable energy projects. NRDC estimates its plan would cost industry $4 billion but save many times that in health benefits.

“The president confronts many threats that appear more urgent, but none are more important to his legacy,” Lashof said.

The administration recently changed the way it estimates the social cost of carbon, which it uses to calculate the costs and benefits of climate rules. Regulators now assume it is worth about $36 per ton to avoid emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared with the $22 per ton they used before.

Scott Segal, a lobbyist for coal-fired utilities, said that he found the cost estimate change “sobering” and that it will allow the administration to impose costlier rules by exaggerating benefits.

The administration has already delayed a proposed rule aimed at regulating greenhouse gas emissions from any new power plant; while Obama will also pursue that policy, individuals said, the EPA will modify the rule or re-propose it before finalizing it.

Even as Obama lays out his climate change plan this week, he will steer clear of making a definitive statement on the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists have turned into a litmus test of the administration’s stance on global warming. The State Department is still reviewing whether to grant a permit to the project, which would ship heavy crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

As Vice President Biden has traveled the country this month appearing at a series of fundraisers, environmentalists have pressed him to commit to blocking the presidential permit. But on multiple occasions, Biden has emphasized that is a decision the president will make in the future, and his role will be to offer advice just before Obama makes the call.

“I’m the vice president,” he has told people, with an emphasis on the third word.

More from the Washington Post :