By Ed King
President Barack Obama will unveil the USA’s new national climate change strategy in a speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday.
In a video posted on the White House website over the weekend, Obama said the plan would reduce pollution, prepare the country for future climate impacts and place it at the front of international efforts to tackle the issue.
Framing a transition to a low carbon economy as an economic opportunity for the US, Obama said all citizens needed to “protect god’s creation”.
“This is a serious challenge, but one uniquely suited to America’s strengths,” he said. “We’ll need scientists to find new fuels, and farmers to grow them. We’ll need engineers to devise new forms of energy, and businesses to sell them.”
Last week Obama told crowds in Berlin the problem required “bold action” warning of a “grim alternative” involving storms, famine and “waves of refugees”.
Nat Keohane, Vice President of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and former White House climate advisor, told RTCC that the new plans were likely to be a package of policies aimed at boosting renewables and targeting coal power rather than a set of emission targets.
And together with well-publicised plans to impose standards on existing coal power plants which generate about 42% of electricity, Keohane stressed a wide range of incentives and regulations were on the cards.
“An example would be emission standards under the Clean Air Act on existing power plants. When I was in the administration we placed standards on new sources that would end the construction of conventional, uncontrolled coal plants, we could see building on that and extending it to existing sources,” he said.
“But I don’t think it’s just going to be Clean Air Act and Environmental Protection Agency. You’re going to see what the government can do over a range of areas. Energy efficiency standards through the Department of Energy (DOE), funding for clean energy research and development through existing channels.
“A lot of renewables, especially solar, on public lands out west, so the department of the interior can support this by accelerating permits for solar. You can go down the list – USDA – agriculture, has an important role to play in advanced biofuels. So there are a whole range of agencies that can contribute.”
Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president on energy and climate change, suggested last week new measures were likely to be additions to existing legislation, ruling out the need to get approval from Congress.
Republican opponents have already signalled their anger. Speaker John Boehner branded new plans “crazy”, adding: “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when American people are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’”
With Congress hostile to any form of climate change legislation, and the Senate yet to confirm Obama’s choice of Gina McCarthy as EPA chief, the administration seems set on exploring every avenue possible to cut emissions.
New efficiency standards for microwave ovens introduced by the DOE at the start of June almost passed under the radar, but are hugely significant.
They cut energy usage in standby mode by up to 75% in microwave ovens, which supporters say will save $3 billion in bills by 2030, and cut emissions equal to taking 12 million cars off the road every year.
And as Bloomberg reports, the administration has also updated its value of the social cost of a tonne of carbon emissions from $23.80 to $38, an increase of 60%. This makes fossil fuel exploration appear more environmentally harmful to regulators than before.
White House video: Addressing the threat of Climate Change
It’s possible the forthcoming package could be the final piece in the jigsaw enabling the US to meet the pledge made at the 2009 UN talks in Copenhagen to reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.
As analysts at the World Resources Institute outlined earlier this year, regulations on coal power plants and vehicle efficiency measures need to be tightened further, allied to more appliance efficiency standards and greater regulation of methane emissions from shale gas exploration.
“I think that’s what you’re going to see the administration talk about – a whole package. Power plant standards are at the centre but there’s a wide range,” said Keohane.
“I don’t think the President is going to come out and reveal a new target or pledges, I think he’ll say here’s what we can do to be forceful and here’s an issue we should be concerned about for our children’s sake.”
Together with new climate regulations, environmentalists also want Obama to rule against the proposed pipeline linking Canada’s tar sands to US refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The pipeline could channel around 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta and shale formations in the US across six states, where it could then be shipped around the world.
There are growing fears that any new regulations could be launched at the same time as a decision on Keystone is announced, in an attempt to placate Congress.
In part of a broader ‘Stop Keystone’ campaign funded by billionaire clean-tech investor Tom Steyer, last week 140 former Obama staffers wrote to the President, urging him to “cement his legacy as a climate champion by rejecting this pipeline”.
The letter concluded: “For so long you have been the source of our hope and inspiration. Please don’t disappoint us. Reject Keystone XL.”