Obama’s Climate Plan: Is It Good Enough?

Bill Scher

From the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, his approach to climate policy has divided the environmentalist community. The “cap-and-trade” bill that he championed, but never received a vote in the Senate, was lauded by some groups as essential and others as weakened by compromise to fossil fuel interests. Some appreciate that he’s regulating fracking, others are critical that he won’t move to ban it. Some are impressed that he’s protected 260 million acres of public lands and waters, others are livid that he’s expanding oil drilling into the Arctic and on other federal lands.

Similar fault lines are emerging in response to his Clean Power Plan, the EPA rule designed to cut carbon emissions from power plants 32 percent relative to their 2005 level by 2030. The Sierra Club hailed the announcement as “the most significant single action any president has ever taken” while 350.org downplayed it. “Taking on King Coal is the easy part … decisions on things like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and Arctic drilling are … the true test of climate leadership,” they said.

How can we make sense of it, and what should citizen-activists do next?

On the negative side of the ledger, Politico’s Michael Grunwald argues the EPA set the bar too low:

The [utility] sector’s emissions are expected to drop 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 … the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years.

But that makes it sound like the entire Clean Power Plan is a rearranging of the deck chairs. Vox’s Brad Plumer argues that the past rate of decarbonization is not expected to keep pace on its own:

US power-plant emissions aren’t destined to keep plunging without further policy. One big reason for last decade’s drop was the massive recession, which hopefully won’t repeat itself anytime soon. What’s more, thanks to the shale gas boom, most of the “easy” cuts have already been made — as utilities switched from coal to cheaper gas. The harder cuts are yet to come, including making greater use of renewable power. That’s what this plan aims to do — and in that sense, it’s a departure from business as usual.

And the emission targets shouldn’t be treated as written in stone. The EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said she expects actual emission cuts to beat the EPA targets:

…you will probably see significantly more emissions reductions than we anticipated. Number one: That’s usually what happens when we regulate utilities—they bring in a big margin of safety. But most importantly because these will be investment signals—not just what the utilities are investing, but these are going to be investments in renewables, investments in energy efficiency, investments in keeping costs low for consumers.

Another criticism came from former Rep. Henry Waxman, who said the EPA should be applying clean power rules to industries beyond utilities:

Under the Clean Air Act’s existing authority, EPA could pursue regulations that would reduce emissions from fossil fuel combustion at industrial sites such as cement, oil refineries, pulp and paper mills and steel mills. These account for 55 percent of all industrial emissions…

But the Obama’s decision to focus on power plants stems from the objective to accomplish, in McCarthy’s words, “what’s doable, reasonable and practical.” The utilities were relatively cooperative during the failed attempt to have Congress enact an economy-wide cap on carbon – they crave regulatory certainty – so a regulatory plan focused on them mitigates the political and legal pushback.

The political payoff is in the positive, if restrained, responses yesterday from utility lobbyists and CEOS. Instead of utilities feeding conservative talking points by threatening mass layoffs, the top industry lobby group, the Edison Electric Institute, praised the EPA for designing a plan with considerable flexibility regarding implementation:

Throughout this rulemaking process, EEI raised a number of issues, and EPA seems to have responded to some of our key concerns. While we are still reviewing and analyzing the rule’s specifics and the impact of the restructured interim goals, the final guidelines appear to contain a range of tools to maintain reliability and better reflect how the interconnected power system operates.

And the CEO of American Electric Power indicated he thought the rule was manageable: “I think it will be good for the climate. As we progress toward the emphasis on renewables and energy efficiency, we’ll be able to make and adapt to changes through the power system…”

That flexibility is key in terms of what citizens should be doing next.

Whether you gravitate toward the optimistic or pessimistic analyses is not very relevant. This is the final rule. It’s on the books. State governments are now tasked with developing their own plans to meet the EPA’s goals. Early adopters will get more federal funds. Resisters will not only lose money, but also the EPA will step in and impose a plan anyway.

The question before us is: How can we make the state plans as strong as possible?

National People’s Action is one group making a grassroots push, urging its members to call their governors and demand a Clean Power Plan that “prioritizes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and job creation for low-income communities.”

That’s a constructive use of grassroots energy, no matter how you feel about Obama’s environmental record to date.

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