Can Obama tackle climate change in his second term?

January 21, 2013

A week after he won the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama addressed a gathering of governors and other officials in Los Angeles, assuring them that global warming would be a top priority for his first term. "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all," he said. "Delay is not an option."


Touting some solar farms in Boulder City, Ariz. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

His goal at the time? An ambitious plan to cut America's heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and invest $150 billion in new clean-energy and efficiency technologies over the next 10 years. It was a pledge to completely upend the existing U.S. energy economy.

But Obama got only part of the way there, to the chagrin of many of his green supporters. True, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 7.7 percent since 2006 — but much of that has been due to the recession and a glut of cheap new natural gas that has displaced dirtier coal, a dip that could just prove temporary.

It's also true that the Obama administration made some fairly large moves on energy and climate in the first term. The stimulus contained $90 billion for various green technologies. Fuel-economy standards were ratcheted up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The EPA began regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. But all that was overshadowed by the fact that the Senate declined to pass what was by far the biggest part of Obama's climate agenda — a nationwide cap on carbon emissions. Hence the disappointment.

So what happens in the upcoming term? In his second inaugural address Monday, Obama took time to stress that global warming would once again be one of his major priorities:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.

That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.

But what might this actually mean in practice? Obama isn't going to persuade Republicans in Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill in the next two years. Instead, the White House will likely have to consider some more modest options. Here are a few possibilities:

1) Use the EPA to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide. So far, the agency has used that power to write carbon standards for future power plants that have yet to be built. Green groups are now urging the EPA to turn its attention to existing power plants, which emit 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution.

One group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has released a detailed plan for how this might work. The EPA would set different overall emissions goals for each state, and power companies would figure out how to meet them through a combination of efficiency, less coal use or renewable power. All told, NRDC estimates that the United States could cut its carbon emissions an additional 10 percent by 2020 this way.

The problems here? Many utilities are likely to oppose these regulations, which NRDC expects to cost some $4 billion per year. What's more, using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide could prove legally dicey, especially if the EPA pursues sharp cuts. (See this old post for a look at how the courts might block carbon regulations.)

2) Use the EPA to crack down on methane leaks from natural-gas infrastructure. Thanks to fracking and other new drilling techniques, the United States is now awash in cheap natural gas. That's mildly helpful on the climate front if natural gas displaces coal, since it means less carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. But there's a catch: The process of drilling for and transporting natural gas can often produce methane leaks. And methane is a potent greenhouse gas in its own right.

In a recent open letter (pdf) to the White House, the Clean Air Task Force urged the EPA to tighten restrictions on methane emissions in the coming years. The agency has proposed new rules on toxic air pollution from natural-gas fracking — rules that could help curb methane leaks as well. But that still leaves oil wells, leaky gas pipelines, and other bits of natural-gas infrastructure untouched. Hence the call for new regulations.

This won't be easy. The oil and gas industries aren't exactly enthusiastic about the EPA wading in to oversee the fracking boom, which has been one of the few bright spots in the U.S. economy these past four years. But green groups point out that leaking methane can often be captured and resold at a profit, which means that industry and environmentalists might be able to find common ground here.

3) Order government agencies to take the long view on climate change. Most of the steps listed above would help the United States meet Obama's short-term goal of cutting carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020. But the open letter from the Clean Air Task Force warns that cutting emissions 80 percent by 2050 will require more than just chipping away at coal plants and methane leaks. Clean-energy tech will have to get a lot better, too.

"Ultimately," the letter notes, "we will need to capture the carbon from gas-fired power plants as well. Renewable energy faces challenges of scale, cost and intermittency; carbon capture and storage faces cost challenges at full scale; and current forms of nuclear power are challenged by safety, waste management, weapons proliferation and cost risks."

Even if Congress isn't offering up further funds for clean tech, the letter notes, agencies such as the Department of Energy can at least start thinking seriously about what it will take to get an 80 percent cut by mid-century. A long-term plan is a first step.

4) Ultimately, though, big moves will require Congress. Obama has signaled at many points that he would be open to more sweeping action to tackle global warming. He has proposed a clean energy standard that would require utilities to get a greater portion of their electricity from renewables. Joseph Aldy, a former White House adviser, has hinted that Obama would be open to a carbon tax if Republicans were willing to negotiate.

But Obama would have to get those proposals through Congress first. And, after that, he’d have to revive international climate talks with countries such as China and India, which have been flagging of late. Which means we’re still a long, long way from a world “that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” By itself, Obama’s reelection certainly won’t change that. There’s a whole lot more he—and the rest of the world—would have to do.

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Sarah Kliff · January 21, 2013