On Wednesday at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Obama said “we have to get to work on” climate change, “the global threat of our time.”
Yet the White House could be preparing to back up those words with action. On Wednesday, the same day the president spoke in Germany, his top climate aide Heather Zichal said he would outline “commonsense” climate actions in the next several weeks. “He is serious about making it a second-term priority,” she said. With Congressional action on even uncontroversial energy efficiency legislation an uncertain thing, the White House will likely focus on steps that require only executive action.
The executive branch has already taken action on things like: issuing an endangerment finding on carbon pollution, adopting stronger vehicle fuel economy standards, investing billions in renewable energy grants and research as well as updating efficiency standards and the electricity grid. Earlier this month, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement to push the world to phase down the super pollutants known as HFCs. But there is much more to do.
Here are some things that should be included in any climate package unveiled by the president this year:
Move forward swiftly to regulate carbon pollution from new power plants. The 2007 Supreme Court decision that the EPA is required to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act led to a 2009 official “Endangerment Finding” that CO2 is a threat to public health. EPA issued draft rules to regulate carbon from new power plants in March of 2012. The already-delayed rules have been delayed since then, following 2.7 million public comments and concerns from critics that the rules treat natural gas and coal too similarly. Obama could announce that EPA is strengthening the rules and moving forward with their implementation ASAP.
Release draft carbon regulations for existing power plants. John Broder reported in the NY Times that senior officials said Obama was “preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.” Juliet Eilperin noted that the president has yet to decide whether to go forward with this. The rules, like those for new sources, would be complex and existing source rules will be more comprehensive by definition. But 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from electric power plants and Obama could take a serious step toward reducing that carbon pollution by announcing the swift release of draft rules for existing plants. The process takes long enough that he needs to act very soon in order to have them in place by 2016.
Ordering all agencies to incorporate the cost of carbon pollution into NEPA analyses. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all federal agencies to take into account and make public the total environmental impact of their decisions on projects and actions. There were reports in March that the president would order federal agencies to take greenhouse gases and climate impacts into account when conducting NEPA reviews. This means both how a project would cause more emissions and how it could be impacted by future climate impacts like extreme heat, flooding, and sea level rise. It would not halt a project on its own, but resulting legal actions from affected parties could affect both mitigation and adaptation. As a recent analysis by CAP noted, it is possible that incorporating the cost of carbon pollution and the impact of climate change into these decisions might even streamline the process. The government recently updated the calculations for the actual social cost of carbon pollution, and ideally in any true cost-benefit analysis, that real economic cost would be incorporated into every decision. Obama could start by including the cost of carbon into NEPA analyses.
Telling the Army Corps of Engineers to take carbon emissions into account for planning decisions. On Tuesday, acting regulatory head of the Army Corps of Engineers Jennifer Moyer testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She told them that the Corps would not review the climate impacts of coal exports. Despite requests from leaders in the Pacific Northwest and environmental organizations, and the fact that coal exported through planned export terminals will mostly be burned in Asia, the Corps said it would limit its focus to activities within the U.S. Representative Henry Waxman told Moyer that “I think the Corps is making a big mistake.” The president could weigh in and work to ensure that the total ramifications of exporting millions of tons of coal are considered by the Corps.
Finalize an international climate protection treaty. The 2011 United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa concluded with an agreement to begin negotiating a new international climate treaty, with a deadline in 2015. Obama could actively participate in negotiating this treaty, which would include all countries within the framework, including developing countries. Including all countries in emissions reductions targets removes a central plank of many critics’ arguments against an international treaty.
Pull the trigger on strong appliance efficiency standards. The Obama administration has been moving at a “glacial pace” to enact critical efficiency standards for electric motors, external power supplies, lighting, and commercial refrigerators. These standards are critical because, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, delays implementing the standards have so far built in a $4.4 billion cost on consumers and 44 million metric tons of additional CO2 emissions. Much of the cost and emissions have not taken place but are inevitable because for every month of delay, millions more inefficient products are locked into the system, potentially used for many years. The office that has largely been the source of the delay is Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which reviews all rules proposed by agencies. In the last few months, the administration has completed the overdue standards on microwaves and distribution transformers. Still, the remaining overdue appliance standards cost consumers $200 million per month and 3 million metric tons of additional CO2 emissions.
Tell the country that the Keystone XL Pipeline is not in America’s national interest. There are many reasons — the pipeline will only create 35 permanent jobs, judging from the Southern Leg’s track record it will spill, and the oil will be piped to refineries that will likely export a great deal of it. But the most important reason is that tar sands production through the Keystone XL pipeline will emit the equivalent of 51 coal plants’ worth of carbon emissions
Use appropriate federal lands and waters to support clean energy deployment. Earlier this year, CAP noted that the president could act to increase the use of public lands for clean energy development and scale back the fossil fuel extraction that currently happens at an alarming rate on lands owned by American taxpayers. “The Department of the Interior already met the president’s goal of authorizing 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federally managed waters and lands. The federal government should build on this success by implementing a ‘clean resources standard’ for public lands and waters. This standard would require federal land and water management agencies to ensure that 35 percent of the electricity from resources on public lands is clean and renewable — from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and small hydropower.”
Fully commit the federal government to renewable energy and electric vehicles. Executive Order 13514 directs: “Federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution … and leverage Federal purchasing power to support innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy technologies.” Obama signed this in 2009, and specifically, it established a 5 percent renewable energy goal for federal agencies. The president could instruct all agencies to meet this goal by 2014. Then he could raise the goal to 10 percent in 2017 an 15 percent in 2017. This would ensure a strong market for renewable energy across the country.
Commit to push for Congressional action on many overdue energy and climate goals. Though Congress has been slow to move on energy objectives, the president could commit to using his second term to achieving some energy accomplishments that require Congressional action. Approving Gina McCarthy, the president’s pick to be the next EPA Administrator. Making the wind Production Tax Credit permanent. Passing the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act. Passing strong efficiency legislation. Cutting expensive fossil fuel taxs. Putting a price on carbon and establishing a national clean energy standard.
While the president is unlikely to announce all of these items as elements of his climate agenda (especially the last one), this list would be good framework for serious action on climate change if it is the “global threat of our time” that “we have to get to work on.”