Obama climate plan: too little, too late

For the first time, the US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to limit emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. The response has been predictable. Environment News Service notes: "Democrats and public health and environmental groups rejoiced in the proposal of a measure they have advocated for years to fight climate change, but Republicans cried doom, warning that the rule would destroy the American economy." The New York Times writes: "[E]nvironmental advocates praised the proposed rule for its breadth and reach while the coal industry attacked it as a symbol of executive overreach that could wreak economic havoc." The Daily Beast's Jason Mark dubbed the program "Obamacare for the Air" because both plans are "numbingly complex," "based on a market system," "likely to transform a key sector of the economy," and "guaranteed to be intensely polarizing." In other words, a market-based plan is being attacked by the right as green totalitarianism. This would be perverse enough if the plan's goals were anywhere close to sufficient to actually address the climate crisis—which, again predictably, they are not.

Power plants that burn fossil fuels account for roughly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. There are currently no national limits on carbon dioxide emissions, although limits are in place for levels of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution emitted by power plants. The Clean Power Plan, as it is being called, allows states various ways to meet its proposed carbon dioxide emissions cuts, including market-based carbon-trading programs such as those already in place in 10 states. The target for the cuts is 30% nationwide below 2005 levels by 2030.

It should be noted that the EPA plan was only drawn up due to what the Brookings Institute's Planet Policy blog calls the "legislative vacuum" on climate change. This prompted the "repurposing" of the Clean Air Act as a vehicle for climate change regulation—an idea first proposed back in March 2012, only to be revised and then re-proposed in autumn 2013, and only now apparently being finalized. Not exactly swift, decisive action. Especially given that the intervening period as seen Hurricane Sandy and other such omens of climate destabilization.

Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center crunches the numbers to find that "the plan turns out to be precious little."

Relative to 2030 emissions projected from current trends, the drop in that year's U.S. CO2 emissions sought by the President is a painfully modest 355 million tonnes (metric tons). That equates to just 7% of total actual emissions from all sources last year (5313 million tonnes).

To be sure, the business-as-usual (no action) trajectory producing that 355 million tonne figure is mine, not the administration's. (At the time I wrote this the White House hadn’t translated its percentage target into metric tons of CO2.) I derive it below, and it's subject to argument. What's not debatable is that power plants are the low-hanging fruit in cutting CO2. That's because electricity-sector CO2 emissions can be cut relatively easily not just via the demand side (through energy efficiency and conservation) but also on the supply side (by converting from coal to gas, and from coal and gas to renewables). Indeed, as of last year, demand and supply steps by industry, household and government had already wrought a 15% reduction in U.S. power plant emissions from the president's 2005 base year (a drop of 361 million tonnes from 2414 million). By calling for only a second round of 15% cuts (355 million tonnes) from 2014 to 2030, the Obama plan in effect takes twice as long (16 years) to cut as much carbon pollution as the country just did (in 8 years, from 2005 to 2013).

In announcing the new plan, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said, "Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life. EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants." This revealingly portrays the institutionally misplaced priorities behind all official responses to the climate crisis. Putting aside the question of human health, "our economy and our way of life" are precisely what is driving destabilization of the biosphere. Viewing this destabilization as a threat to "our" institutions gets things precisely backwards: confusing cause and effect. And they are more accurately termed their institutions, because the machinery for planetary destruction was put in place by the ruling class, with no democratic input. We are not so sanguine that we can avert apocalypse through such technocratic measures as carbon trading, carbon taxing and greater efficiency without a public expropriation and radical transformation of that machinery…

  1. Supreme Court limits EPA greenhouse gas regs

    The US Supreme Court on June 23 limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases while still leaving the agency free to do so in most cases. In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, which was consolidated with six other cases, the court was considering whether the EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases. Stationary sources are typically electricity-generating utility plants and major factories, and the permitting requirements in question involve the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act's Title I and Title V to issue permits for construction or modification and operation of stationary sources. A three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the EPA's determination that greenhouse gases were an endangering pollutant that the EPA was obliged to regulate. A divided court affirmed in part and reversed in part, with the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia:

    To sum up: We hold that EPA exceeded its statutory authority when it interpreted the Clean Air Act to require [prevention of significant deterioration (PSD)] and Title V permitting for stationary sources based on their greenhouse-gas emissions. Specifically, the Agency may not treat greenhouse gases as a pollutant for purposes of defining a "major emitting facility" (or a "modification" thereof) in the PSD context or a "major source" in the Title V context. To the extent its regulations purport to do so, they are invalid. EPA may, however, continue to treat greenhouse gases as a "pollutant subject to regulation under this chapter" for purposes of requiring [best available control technology (BACT)] for "anyway" sources.

    Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined Scalia's opinion in full. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. They would have given the EPA broader authority to regulate emissions. Justice Samuel Alito also filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

    From Jurist, June 23. Used with permission.

  2. US lawmakers file brief challenging clean power plan

    More than 200 members of Congress filed an amici curiae brief (PDF) in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Feb. 23, challenging the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) proposes an incremental decrease of power plant emissions by nearly a third as soon as 2030. The mostly Republican group of lawmakers argue that the agency is "seeking to usurp the role of Congress to establish climate and energy policy for the nation." They charge the EPA has failed to follow guidance by Congress, and has overreached its authority by promulgating a final rule for the energy sector.

    Earlier this month the US Supreme Court ordered that the Obama administration delay enforcement of the CPP pending a resolution to legal challenges. The request to block the implementation of the CPP was made in late January, with states insisting that the plan's implementation would create a burden on states. In June the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split, ruled that the EPA could not make regulations regarding the toxic emissions of power plants without considering costs.

    In August the EPA proposed new rules to cut methane emissions by the oil and gas industry as part of the Obama administration's commitment to taking action on climate change. Also in August the US District Court of the District of North Dakota granted a preliminary injunction against a rule granting the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over small US waterways. In another recent case involving the Clean Water Act, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit last December against the EPA accusing the agency of failing to comply with a court order to strengthen storm drain pollution regulation. The presently disputed Clean Power Plan was announced  by President Obama in an attempt to to improve air quality and reduce green house gas emissions.

    From Jurist, Feb. 24. Used with permission.