Obama’s climate action plan

This has been a massive news week.  We started off with unrest in Brazil, more unrest in Turkey, more bloodshed and chaos in Syria, Snowden fleeing Hong Kong, the bombshell that the “IRS war on conservatives” was another GOP fantasy, and the SCOTUS overturning portions of the Voting Rights Act.  Then yesterday afternoon came Obama’s speech on climate change.  

Climate change nerds like me had already spent the morning picking apart the Climate Action Plan that the White House had released earlier.  There is a lot to like.  It has a number of components but I think it is fair to say the centerpiece is the order for the EPA to begin to regulate CO2 emissions from existing power plants (and not just new plants).  This will effectively phase out most coal energy in the US over the next decade or two.

This approach is based on work by NGOs over the last five to ten years, especially by the NRDC (see their innovative report here and read about the key elements here) and the Center for Biological Diversity (disclosure: I am on the board of the Climate Law Institute of the CBD). Lawsuits brought forth from the CBD are what led to the endangerment findings for the polar bear and Caribbean staghorn and elkhorn corals. The plan had been to use the listing of these species as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act to sue the EPA to force it to implement its long-considered emissions limits on existing coal power plants.  Ahhh.  I know this is complicated.  One question I will have for the CLI/CBD is how their legal strategy will change if the EPA actually does get its act together on this.

The White House released a memo that orders the EPA to sort out its new rules and includes these deadlines:

  • September 2013: Due date for a revised proposal for new-plant standards. (EPA proposed some more than a year ago but recently went back to the drawing board over concerns about legal vulnerability.)
  • June 2014: Due date for a proposal for existing-plant standards.
  • June 2015: Due date for finalized existing-plant standards.
  • June 2016: Date by which states should be required to submit implementation plans.

Until the EPA issues those new rules, it is impossible to fully evaluate the impacts of this somewhat vague  policy approach.  For example, will the limits apply to individual plants or to each states “power fleet”?  This detail really matters (as do dozens of other details).

NRDC’s proposal solves this dilemma by making a state’s power fleet the unit of regulation. Rather than each power plant having to meet the standard, a state’s utilities have to keep their fleet averages at or below the standard. (Just as automakers don’t have to hit fuel-efficiency targets with every car or truck, only for their fleet averages.)  That immediately expands the range of compliance tools available to utilities. They can buy efficient boilers for some plants; they can shift generation from their coal fleet to their natural gas fleet; they can build out renewables; they can expand cogeneration and waste-heat capture; and they can reduce demand through energy efficiency. All these things can add up to a steady decrease in the fleet average CO2 lbs/MWh. source

But the contents of the plan gave no hint on how strong the Prez would come out in support of the science and against the politics and false assumptions that have stalled progress.  (Neither did his past actions or words, which have been disappointing to put it lightly).  It was an amazing and historic speech. Beyond the delivery and significance, the content was perfect. He hammered, then ignored climate change deniers. He talked about the real economics of energy, including clean energy, and the real economic costs of coal (which even beyond climate change are immense). He talked about getting ready for the coming floods (AKA adaptation) and a variety of other initiatives that will help to reduce our national emissions.

One irritating little fact of all this is that as far as we know, the EPA was already working on these rules.  So in one sense, all the Prez did was announce (or admit to) an existing policy.  Still, I am psyched to see the feds finally openly joining the cause.

I am cynical enough to worry that he or the EPA will not follow through. Yet I am optimistic this will be a historic turning point in the, well, lets be honest, war on coal.

Then this morning came the news that SCOTUS found the DOMA unconstitutional – a finding that is effectively the beginning of the end of legislation and thousands of federal and state rules that discriminate against gay people.

We don’t like this blog to get too political.  Although sadly, so much about environmental conservation and management has become political.  Regardless, climate change and gays rights are my two big political issues.  I’m not speaking for my employer here (UNC and the state of NC) or my SeaMonster colleagues, but I am very, very happy right now about these two truly historic events.

Most of the events that alter American life are negative – the events that we can remember where we were when they happened; e.g., the Kennedy assassinations, the Challenger explosion, 9-11, the Oklahoma City bombing. This week we have seen not one but two events that will almost certainly change our country, if not the world, for the best.  Given the rest of the news, including the bad environmental or geopolitical news that is surely just around the corner, I think we should all take a break from the grim and celebrate the good.

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