Obama Gets Serious About Climate Change

EPA Admin Gina McCarthy Announces New Regulations Under Obama's Climate Action Plan

Yglesias calls today “the most important day of Obama’s second term”:

It’s important not only because climate change is an issue of enormous significance, but because the text of the Clean Air Act really does give the executive branch power that matters. The White House can’t unilaterally change the wage structure of the United States or create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but it really can revolutionize the environmental practices of the electricity sector — a sector that, as seen [here], is responsible for about 38.4 percent of America’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

Ryan Koronowski declares that this is “the most significant move any U.S. president has made to curtail carbon pollution in history”:

There are many opinions of what method is best to lower emissions: carbon tax, cap-and-trade, clean energy incentives, direct regulation. All that matters for those concerned about climate change, in the end, is whether emissions drop, and how quickly. The Council of Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi points to EIA analysis of the likely impact of a carbon tax and other climate bills on power plant emissions. A $25-per-ton carbon tax would be far more effective, dropping emissions 47 percent by 2020 and 66 percent by 2030 — and the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House would have lowered emissions 56 percent by 2030 according to the EIA. The EPA’s proposed target, however, achieves reductions comparable to a far lower carbon tax, the Senate’s 2010 American Power Act, and 2012′s Clean Energy Standard Act. Levi suggests that the 2030 could be seen as a moving target — it could be ratcheted down through additional legislation or new regulation.

Indeed, the EPA could finalize this rule next year with a stronger target, especially if it receives a great deal of feedback from the public. Many environmental groups will be pushing for more ambitious targets later in the decade, even as they nearly unanimously applauded the regulations.

Ben Adler is hearing complaints from environmentalists. He also wonders about the international reaction:

The big question on the minds of many environmentalists is whether this will be enough to encourage other major polluting countries to make significant climate commitments. While the CO2 reduction will be significant by historical U.S. standards, it won’t get emissions down anywhere close to what’s needed to avert catastrophic global warming, nor even get the U.S. to the goal it agreed to at U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009: a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. The hope is that it will signal enough progress to get the rest of the world to agree to binding emissions reductions in the next round of U.N. climate talks, which is supposed to culminate in a new climate treaty signed in Paris in December 2015. Will these proposed rules be good enough?

Plumer has a full explainer on the new EPA regulations. On whether the rules will survive legal scrutiny:

[T]he regulations could get knocked down in court. Industry groups and conservative states are sure to challenge the power-plant rule as soon as humanly possible. Environmentalists, for their part, have argue that the EPA’s flexible approach to regulation is defensible. Other legal experts think it’s a closer call. But it would all come down to whatever the DC Circuit Court or the Supreme Court decided.

If the EPA’s power-plant rule did get struck down in court, the agency might have to start all over again — raising the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to craft a new rule until Obama left office in 2017.

Jason Mark labels the EPA move “Obamacare for the air”:

If the “job-killing EPA regs” and “Obama overreach” soundbites seems to echo the political script from the Obamacare battle, there are some key differences. For starters, Republican-controlled states won’t have the ability to opt out of the system, as many have with the Affordable Care Act’s extension of Medicaid. If a state fails to submit a plan for lowering emissions from its power plants, the EPA has the authority to impose one—a scenario most states will choose to avoid.

More importantly, corporate opposition to the new rules isn’t as unanimous as it may appear. Several major electric utilities —including Dynergy, American Electric Power, and First Energy — have expressed cautious optimism about being able to thrive within the new regulations. Electricity generation is a capital-intensive industry that works on planning horizons of 30 to 50 years, and the utilities would prefer certainty and clarity as opposed to the policy purgatory they’ve been in the for the last decade.

Michael Grunwald sees the regulations as part of Obama’s war on coal:

It’s filthy stuff. When Obama said Saturday that his carbon rules will prevent 100,000 asthma attacks in Year One, he wasn’t describing the health benefits of emitting less carbon dioxide; he was describing the health benefits of burning less coal.

So let’s face it: When Obama talks up his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, he really means all-of-the-above-except-the-black-rocks-below. In the 21st century, any national leader that takes environmental protection and the fate of the planet seriously will need to launch a war on coal, and Obama takes it very seriously. He hasn’t advertised his war on coal—it would be questionable politics in swing states like Ohio or Virginia, and even his home state of Illinois—but he’s fought it with vigor.

Tom Zeller Jr. thinks the plan may boost the economy:

While some jobs will almost certainly be lost if companies decide that it’s not worth it to outfit their aging coal plants with new pollution-control technologies, those losses will almost certainly be offset by the creation of new jobs elsewhere, as the new regulations drive investment in cleaner technologies, efficiency upgrades and other areas. A recent analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that new greenhouse gas limits on power plants could reduce electric bills for U.S. households and businesses by as much as $37.4 billion by 2020, and create more than 274,000 jobs.

Sure, the NRDC isn’t exactly an impartial observer, but then neither is the API or the U.S. Chamber. The larger point is that most regulations have upsides and downsides, and short-term pain is often offset to some degree by long-term benefits that industry likes to ignore.

McArdle has low expectations:

As with any new Environmental Protection Agency rule, a lengthy comment period will ensue. After the comment period, the EPA presumably has discretion about the deadlines they set. With a big election coming in 2016, and some nice, big, coal-consuming swing states on the line, I would wager cash money that those deadlines are set no earlier than Dec. 31, 2016.

Whenever the deadlines do kick in, the new president will be besieged with desperate legislators and governors pleading to keep electricity prices from rising in these hard economic times. I can imagine a steadfast Democratic president standing up for the environment against utility lobbyists, coal-mining districts and electricity users, telling them that we need to do what’s best for the planet, not some narrow economic interest. But I can also imagine a beautiful world where everyone rides around in carriages driven by unicorns, angels sing in the trees, and purple raspberry pie grows on bushes outside your backdoor.

Ann Carlson reminds everyone that Obama is following the law:

Obama’s proposed rules are not a power grab. Nor are they an end run around Congress. Rather, the rules are reactive, a legally-required response to a petition filed when Bill Clinton was still president. I hope this part of the story — that Obama is following, not skirting or flouting, the law — gets highlighted in what is already a big press story.

Here’s the backdrop for those who don’t know it. In 1999, the International Center for Technology Assessment and a number of other non-profit organizations filed a petition with the Clinton EPA arguing that EPA should regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles under Section 202 of the Clean Air Act. In 2003, after George W. Bush became President, EPA denied the petition. A coalition of states and environmental groups then challenged the denial of the petition in the case that resulted in the landmark decision Massachusetts v. EPA. The Court held in Mass v. EPA that the agency erroneously denied the petition. The Court also ruled — and this is key — that greenhouse gases are an “air pollutant” as defined in the Clean Air Act and that EPA must decide whether, under Section 202 of the Act, greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. The Court’s ruling triggered a cascade of regulatory actions by EPA, all required by the Court’s substantive holdings.

And Ezra Klein points out that the new regulations “are far less ambitious than the proposal McCain offered in Oregon in 2008”:

They’re less ambitious than the proposals Newt Gingrich championed through the Aughts. They’re far less than what’s required to keep the rise in temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

But they’re probably at the outer limit of what can be done so long as the Republican Party refuses to even believe in climate change, much less work with the Obama administration on a bill. The good news, if there is any, is that the Republican Party hasn’t always refused to believe in climate change. There was even a time when its key national leaders were committed to doing something about it. Those leaders are still around today. They could still do something about it today.

(Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy’s signature is shown on new regulations for power plants June 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)