Obama’s boldest move on carbon comes with perils
WASHINGTON – The new pollution rule the Obama administration announces Monday will be a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and arguably the most significant U.S. environmental regulation in decades.
But it’s not one the White House wanted.
As with other issues, the regulation to limit the pollution blamed for global warming from power plants is a compromise for Obama, who again finds himself caught between his aspirations and what is politically and legally possible.
It will provoke a messy and drawn-out fight with states and companies that produce electricity, and may not be settled until the eve of the next presidential election in 2016, or beyond.
“It’s going to be like eating spaghetti with a spoon. It can be done, but it’s going to be messy and slow,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
At the crux of the problem is Obama’s use of a 1970 law that was not intended to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Obama was forced to rely on the Clean Air Act after he tried and failed to get Congress to pass a new law during his first term. When the Republicans took over the House, the goal became impossible.
The new rule, as the president described it in a news conference in 2010, is another way of “skinning the cat” on climate change.
“For anybody who cares about this issue, this is it,” Heather Zichal, Obama’s former energy and climate adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “This is all the president has in his toolbox.”
The rule will tap executive powers to tackle the single largest source of the pollution blamed for heating the planet: carbon dioxide emitted from power plants. They produce about 40 percent of the electricity in the nation and about one-third of the carbon pollution that makes the U.S. the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
“There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.
“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
While Obama has made major reductions in carbon pollution from cars and trucks by increasing fuel efficiency, manufacturers cooperated after an $85 billion government bailout.
His rule requiring new power plants to capture some of their carbon dioxide and bury it underground, while significant, has little real-world impact because few new coal plants are expected to be built due to market conditions.
Both those rules also prescribed technological fixes or equipment to be placed on the automobile or power plant.
The rule released Monday, though, would allow states to require power plants to make changes such as switching from coal to natural gas or enact other programs to reduce demand for electricity and produce more energy from renewable sources.
They also can set up pollution-trading markets as 10 other states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions. Plans from states won’t be due until 2016, but the rule will become final a year before.
That hasn’t stopped the hoopla over the proposal.
Some Democrats worried about re-elections have asked the White House, along with Republicans, to double the length of the rule-making comment period, until after this November’s elections.