Can Executive Action Save The Climate?

Bill Scher

The arrival of Center for American Progress founder John Podesta to the White House inner circle has kicked up buzz around what President Obama may do for the environment by executive order.

As The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer reminded us last month, Podesta was the author of a 2010 compilation of recommended executive actions Obama could employ to circumvent Congress, five pages of which centered on the environment. Politico reported that Podesta only took the job because he was promised a big role on climate.

And this week BuzzFeed published speculation that Podesta will supercharge the White House Council on Environmental Quality to provide a “streamlined process for bold new regulatory moves aimed at curbing greenhouse gases and standing up the alternative energy industry.”

President Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency have already set in motion executive action to cap carbon emissions from existing power plants, giving Secretary of State John Kerry new leverage to pursue a historic global climate treaty. What else can Podesta do?

Most importantly, he can ensure that the White House and the EPA stay on track. There will be plenty of political pressure on White House from Democrats in fossil fuel production states to get the EPA to back off. Podesta can help keep the naysayers at bay.

Podesta can also pursue the litany of smaller-scale executive actions that he compiled that help chip away at our carbon emissions, such as requiring city buses to use low-polluting fuel, converting carbon-intensive Air Force hangars to solar power and shift energy production on public lands away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

But can Obama, and Podesta, do even more? With the planet on the line, should they be thinking even bigger?

The Institute for Policy Integrity is trying to legally force the EPA, by judicial fiat, to impose a carbon cap beyond just power plants to cover mobile sources. Turning a carbon cap into a legal necessity and not a political choice would be lovely, and save the White House from some of the political fallout a more ambitious plan would spark, but it’s certainly a long shot.

Beyond the courts, those environmentalists most critical of the President’s energy strategy are trying to pressure the administration to stop producing fossil fuels on public lands.

The Obama administration already has been ramping up renewable energy production on public lands. The Interior Department stated last June: “Since 2009 Interior has approved 25 utility-scale solar facilities, 9 wind farms and 11 geothermal plants, with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure to connect to established power grids. When built, these projects could provide more than 12,500 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to power more than 4.4 million homes, and support an estimated 17,000 construction and operations jobs.”

But a recent Rolling Stone piece, Bill McKibben myopically trashed the entirety of Obama’s climate policy on the basis of the administration’s public land management. He deems the planned EPA regulations that will prevent the construction of any new traditionally designed coal plants as a mere “mopping-up action”, but says he is making “the problem worse … with stunning regularity” by allowing various fossil fuel projects to move forward.

The push to keep as much carbon in the ground is laudable, but the crude strategy McKibben envisions risks a massive political backlash unraveling the entire climate project – go to Australia if you don’t believe me. In any carbon cap regime, some fossil fuels will still be in the mix. Hitting Obama for being an energy realist while successfully cutting our carbon emissions and setting the stage for major international breakthrough is missing the target. The problem with the climate is not Obama.

Furthermore, McKibben’s Rolling Stone article is simply wrong when he slams the Obama administration for auctioning off coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. McKibben hints at his own misfire when he claims “Obama’s plan to auction Powder River Basin coal has so far failed – there aren’t any bidders.” McKibben proceeds to solely credit activists blocking Pacific shipping ports for the “failure,” but that’s not the story.

One auction in August had no bidders, and a detailed analysis from a longtime Wyoming energy reporter found that coal companies held back in part because of the Obama’s climate regulatory push, but no mention of any issue with ports.

A second auction in September actually did have one bidder, but the bid was too low and was rejected by the Obama administrationundercutting prior charges from Greenpeace that the Obama administration had a corrupt bidding process determined to give the coal away.

But even if McKibben’s charges are excessive, he does raise an important issue of land management. We need to be counting our carbon if we are to meet our targets.

The Center for American Progress has proposed a “carbon-emissions reduction plan for public lands” that does not ban fossil fuel production but would set clear carbon standards, accounting measures and appropriate lease prices. Podesta is now in a position to drive this initiative.

But all of these initiatives have to proceed carefully. Already, Democrats in key 2014 races are on their heels because of the President’s aggressive climate push. To some degree, this is inevitable. But because the climate clock is ticking, we need the fortitude to take our licks and keep moving forward.

Also because the climate clock is ticking, we don’t have luxury of making too many political mistakes. A few losses are bearable. Blowout losses risk scaring away politicians from taking any action at all.

With Congress currently a black hole for climate legislation, executive action is the only game in town. But we need to be careful how we play.

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