Obama's Climate Plan: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The presdent delivers his climate speech at Georgetown University | Photo: White House

President Barack Obama's long-awaited Climate Action Plan, released Tuesday in connection with a speech at Georgetown University, contains some long-overdue good ideas -- and some long-outdated bad ones. The plan includes much-anticipated limits on carbon emissions from power plants, incentives for energy conservation, and a program to preserve landscapes that sequester carbon. But it also ramps up renewable energy development on some of those same landscapes, increases the nation's reliance on long-distance transmission, and includes a continued role for so-callled "clean coal" projects.

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The Climate Action Plan is a three-pronged document. It includes a plan to cut the United States' greenhouase gas emissions; a much less-detailed plan to make the country more resilient to the likely effects of climate change; and a loose strategy for international cooperation to reduce global greenhouse as emissions.

The centerpiece of the U.S. emissions reduction plan is a directive to the EPA, coming in the form of a Presidential Memorandum, ordering the agency to enact carbon emissions standards for new and exiisting power plants.

This move has been anticipated for quite a while. An EPA carbon cap on power plants was the main new policy expected in the wake of Obama's ultimatum to Congress in his most recent State of The Union address, when he said:

If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take -- now and in the future -- to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

No federal limit now exists on carbon emissions from power plants; depending on whether the EPA comes up with a plan that's both effective and enforceable, this could be the furthest-reaching component of the President's Climate Action Plan.

Other potentially positive components of the Plan include:

  • Increasing fuel economy standards for heavy duty vehicles
  • A call for Congress to phase out tax breaks and subsidiies for the fossil fuel industry
  • Setting a 20 percent renewable electricity standard for the Federal government by 2020
  • Raising federal energy efficiency standards for electric appliances
  • Funding rural utilities' ratepayer energy efficiency programs
  • Consolidating and expanding Federal policy on other greenhouse gases, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane
  • boosting renewable energy development such as rooftop solar on the Federal gvernment's housiing stock
  • Forefronting the role of forests and other landscapes as allies in fighting climate change

That last item is particularly notable, as it marks one of the very few prominent mentions of landscape conservation ever issued by the Obama administration. In the words of the Climate Action Plan,

Pressures to develop forest lands for urban or agricultural uses also contribute to the decline of forest carbon sequestration. Conservation and sustainable management can help to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere while also improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and otherwise managing forests to be more resilient in the fact of climate change. The Administration is working to identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests, as well as other critical landscapes including grasslands and wetlands, in the face of a changing climate.

However, that new concern for landscape-level conservation doesn't exactly pervade the entire plan. The second-most prominent action item in the plan, in fact, seems to contradict it altogether, by doubling the administration's previous goals for remote utility-scale renewable energy development on public lands:

In 2012 the President set a goal to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewables on public lands by the end of the year. The Department of the Interior achieved this goal ahead of schedule and the President has directed it to permit an additional 10 gigawatts by 2020. Since 2009, the Department of Interior has approved 25 utility-scale solar facilities, nine wind farms, and 11 geothermal plants, which will provide enough electricity to power 4.4 million homes and support an estimated 17,000 jobs.

The science on carbon sequestration services performed by intact arid land habitats is still inconclusive, but those landscapes do sequester some carbon both in their organic matter and in subsurface deposits of calcium carbonate. The services those landscapes provide to the wildlife species most at risk from our greenhouse gas emissions, however, are not in doubt. Given that only a very small percentage of the 10 gigawattts of power permitted by Interior is actually reaching the grid at the moment, doubling the amount of renewables permitted on public land seems a sacrifice of those critically impotant landscapes for no real benefit.

As does another section of the Climate Action Plan:

Upgrading the country's electric grid is critical to our efforts to make electricity more reliable, save consumers money on their energy bills, and promote clean energy sources. To advance these important goals, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum this month that directs federal agencies to streamline the siting, permitting and review process for transmission projects across federal, state, and tribal governments [sic].

Upgrading the grid to make it more robust and resiliient is crucial. That means more local generation of clean energy, establishment of microogrids, and reducing our country's dependence on remote sources of energy that require fragile, unreliable transmission lines. Streamlining long-distance transmission projects is almost without exception a step in the wrong direction, toward remote generation business as usual. And if that streamlining includes shortcutting of environmental review of those projects, then we might just trammel those all-important intact landscapes under our boots as we take that step backwards.

But the most troubling aspect of the Climate Action Plan comes cloaked in obscuring language:

In the coming weeks, the Department of Energy will issue a Federal Register Notice announcing a draft of a solicitation that would make up to $8 billion in (self-pay) loan guarantee authority available for a wide array of advanced fossil energy projects under its Section 1703 loan guarantee program. This solicitation is designed to support investments in innovative technologies that can cost-effectively meet financial and policy goals, including the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. The proposed solicitation will cover a broad range of advanced fossil energy projects.

"Innovative technologies" in "advanced fossil energy" that include "sequestration" of carbon emissions is essentially administration code for so-called Clean Coal technologies. That reference is made more explicit in the International Cooperation section of the plan:

The United States works with China, India, and other countries that currently rely heavily on coal for power generation to advance the development and deployment of clean coal technologies. In addition, the U.S. leads the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, which engages 23 other countries and economies on carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Going forward, we will continue to use these bilateral and multilateral efforts to promote clean coal technologies.

The problem? Clean coal doesn't work, and throwing money at research, while useful from a scientiific standpoint, is unlikely to make carbon capture and storage technically feasible anytime soon, let alone cost-effective.

In his speech, Obama expanded on this section by saying he'd be working to cut subsidies to overseas coal plants that don't employ carbon capture and storage, which is a bit more hopeful way of framing the issue. Whether that approach survives after the applause dies down remains to be seen, but it would be nice.

Natural gas is another obvious subject of "innovative fossil fuel technologies," and in both the Plan and the President's speech, natural gas enjoyed a wealth of posiitive attention as a "bridge fuel" to a more climate-friendly future. In his speech, Obama lauded the fact that the U.S. has become the world's leading producer of natural gas. Tellingly, the president didn't name the technology that has made that possible.

So: a mixture of good ideas, some long overdue, with some likely futile positive initiatives. (The notion of asking the current House of Representatives to end subsidies to coal and oil companies provokes a chortle.) And some bad ideas included in service to business as usual, with an "all of the above" approach that keeps utility monopolies and fossil fuel companies in the loop and calls them part of the solution.

None of this is a surprise from this administration. Obama's speech was drowned out at repeated intervals by fossil-fueled aircraft coming in for landings at Reagan National Airport, handily symbolic of fossil fuel's representatives in D.C. drowning out any effort to end climate change. And despite the President's stirring rhetoric, he essentially wheedled at his opponents that he was willing to "work with anybody" to get this plan enacted, a strategy that has gotten him nowhere on more occasions during his Presidency than we can recount here.

But that mention of protecting natural landscapes to help both prevent and mitigate climate change is at least a little promising. The good news is, we already have a number of federal agencies whose missions include protecting those landscapes. Across the country, those agencies' staff have lately watched their superiors shelve their historic missions so that they can carry out the Administration's renewable energy development mandates. If those staff can point to that Climate Action Plan's landscape conservation component to defend their ability to do their jobs, that would be a good thing.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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