Obama targets power plants in call for climate change action

President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping plan to combat climate change, including setting in motion the first limits on greenhouse gas pollution from existing power plants and accelerating renewable projects on federal lands.

During a speech at Georgetown University, Obama also announced an $8 billion loan guarantee program to support investments in advanced fossil energy technologies and efficiency projects, including carbon capture and sequestration systems that hold the promise of cleaning up coal-fired power.

“The question is not whether we should act. The overwhelming judgment of science…has put all that to rest,” Obama said. “The question now is whether we have the courage to act before it is too late.”

Obama’s move delivers on his second-term inaugural vow to tackle climate change and his State of the Union promise to use executive powers to take action if Congress doesn’t address the issue. None of the initiatives announced Tuesday require congressional action, senior administration officials said Monday.

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But they will take time, even without expected legal challenges. Under a presidential memorandum, Obama is directing his Environmental Protection Agency to propose new carbon dioxide emissions standards for existing power plants within a year, with a final rule expected no sooner than June 2015. Even then, states will have time to establish their own compliance plans, a process that analysts said could stretch 18 months or more.

Obama also is directing his EPA to re-propose a stalled plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, following the introduction of an initial draft rule last year that would have effectively ruled out new coal-fired power, unless it was combined with still-developing carbon capture technology.

The efforts could stretch beyond Obama’s tenure in the White House, potentially putting the initiatives in the hands of a less-supportive administration.

“We know that we have to get to work quickly to not only propose but ultimately finalize the rule,” a senior administration official said. While it will take time, “the point here is that we are beginning a process.”

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Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, said an EPA start soon could mean plans are in place five years from now.

Still, environmentalists hailed the move as a major step forward, given that the United States’ existing fleet of more than 5,000 power plants is responsible for about 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.

“This plan takes aim at the heart of the problem: the dangerous carbon pollution from our power plants,” said Dan Lashof, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Reducing that pollution is the most important step we can take, as a nation, to stand up to climate change.”

Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said going after existing power plant pollution is the best alternative to a congressionally imposed, economy-wide price on carbon. But the EPA should work aggressively with states and power utilities “to devise a flexible strategy that allows a variety of state-level policies, including market-based approaches, and allows utilities to cut emissions at the lowest possible cost,” Claussen said.

Obama vowed to work in concert with states to develop plans for limiting power plants’ emissions. The EPA has been obligated to tackle carbon pollution from power plants and refineries since a December 2010 settlement with conservationists. However, Obama’s plan will not touch on refineries; a document detailing the blueprint includes no mention of them.

In the power sector, the eventual emissions limits could propel a move away from coal as a source of electricity and further encourage utilities to switch to natural gas, which producers fewer emissions when burned.

Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, said a flexible EPA rule could encourage both natural gas and combined heat and power technologies that produce electricity along with useful heat.

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And on Tuesday, Obama’s speech was littered with comments praising natural gas. He credited the fossil fuel with helping to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (though a slow economy also contributed to the decline). He praised domestic energy development — including natural gas drilling — for “producing energy and creating jobs at the same time.” And he described natural gas as an essential transition fuel while the U.S. moves toward even cleaner energy sources.

Obama also stressed the importance of paring methane emissions tied to natural gas, both at the wellhead and when it is transmitted. Although methane does not remain in the atmosphere as long as other greenhouse gases, it is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere.

“This does not mean we’re suddenly going to stop producing fossil fuels. Transitioning to a clean energy economy takes time,” Obama said. “We will keep working with the industry to make drilling safer, cleaner and to make sure we’re not increasing methane emissions.”

Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the industry “recognizes methane as a potent greenhouse gas, and we support efforts to gain greater knowledge on methane emissions.” But, he stressed, “it is important to use sound science to detect data gaps and identify technologies, best practices and incentive-based opportunities to reduce emissions.”

Still, Obama is likely to face a fight with Republicans, electric utilities and other interests over aspects of his plan. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it would be “absolutely crazy” to clamp down on power plants’ carbon pollution.

Other Republican lawmakers on Tuesday blasted Obama’s plan for tackling power plant emissions as a backdoor “energy tax” that would hurt all consumers and businesses.

And some industry critics said he missed a big opportunity to highlight the power of U.S. natural gas to help winnow carbon dioxide emissions around the globe. Exporting the fossil fuel could help replace coal-fired power generation in other countries, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

“By exporting (liquefied natural gas), not only would America benefit from huge job growth, but we would be providing a low-carbon solution to other nations and helping them to likewise reduce their greenhouse gas emissions,” Sgamma said.

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Although Obama’s plan did not aggressively target the oil and gas sector — aside from repeating his call to end some targeted tax breaks — some industry leaders weren’t breathing easy.

Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs for San Antonio-based Tesoro, said he’s deriving no comfort from Obama’s decision to leave the refining sector out of his plan to throttle industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

“What this administration does to the coal industry is what they intend to try and do with refining — distort markets by forcing artificial price signals and fostering reliance on technologies that are nascent at best,” Brown said. “Further, the legal precedents that the White House will try and set with these new rules promises good times ahead only for Clean Air Act litigators.”

Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal, said last week that the president understands that climate change is a legacy issue and the U.S. can play a leadership role. When he took office four years ago, Obama vowed to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020.

Although reining in power plant emissions is the signature item, Obama’s climate change plan also includes:

  • a fresh appeal to Congress to spike “fossil fuel tax subsidies,” in keeping with the United States’ commitment before international leaders at 2009 G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Lawmakers have rejected Obama’s repeated requests to repeal oil and gas industry tax incentives, including a deduction for intangible drilling costs.
  • directing the Interior Department to permit enough wind, solar and other renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020 to power 6 million homes.
  • setting a goal of installing 100 megawatts of renewable power on federally assisted housing by 2020.
  • developing new fuel economy standards for big trucks, buses and vans produced after 2018, building on existing standards finalized two years ago that govern heavy-duty vehicles manufactured from 2014-2018.
  • establishing a goal of using efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings to pare carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030. That would be equivalent to more than half of the annual carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector.
  • directing agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with methane. The administration says methane emissions can be pared from many sectors across the economy, including at dairy farms, coal mines, landfills and oil and gas projects. Efforts to build and upgrade gas pipelines could “reduce emissions and enhance economic productivity,” as part of the broader push to limit methane emissions, according to a document outlining Obama’s climate change plan.

Obama also said he would to roll out climate adaptation programs designed to help communities adjust to more unpredictable weather patterns, warmer temperatures and more frequent floods. For instance, flood-risk reduction standards will be updated for all federal funded projects. A new national drought resilience partnership is envisioned to help communities and farmers prepare for drought and wildfires.

Follow live analysis from policy reporter Jennifer Dlouhy as she covers Obama’s address:

The White House released this message previewing the president’s message: