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Climate SOTU 2013: All eyes on executive action

2013 February 13
Emission scenarios from WRI’s recent report “Can the U.S. Get There from Here?”

Emission scenarios from WRI’s recent report “Can the U.S. Get There from Here?”

Environmental groups were pleased when President Obama dedicated a whole paragraph to climate change in his second inaugural address. They are now eager to see what executive actions he might take in his second term, after he spoke strongly on the dangers of climate change and the need for action in last night’s State of the Union address, but did not cite any specific plans.

Most immediately, green groups will be watching Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline (very large rallies are planned in DC and around the country this Sunday by 350.org) and the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 from existing power plants, an executive action to which the Natural Resources Defense Council recently devoted an entire campaign.

Energy and climate analysts seemed divided as to whether or not Obama will reject the Keystone XL pipeline, given his recent focus on domestic energy development, a large feature in both his 2012 and 2013 State of the Union addresses alongside his mainstay manufacturing and education blocks. He proposed an Energy Security Trust funded by “some of our oil and gas revenues…that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” This worries me as it seems like a trade he might offer while he approves Keystone. Also, wasn’t Obama leading the fight to get rid of subsidies for oil and gas companies? What happened to that initiative?

Of course, everyone is focused on executive actions since “Congress is no help as long as right-wing Republicans have veto power” according to Grist’s David Roberts. Obama had a hat tip in his speech to the cap and trade and bill that was once in the Senate, and he encouraged Congress to pursue a “market-based solution to climate change”.

Green groups are not holding their breath for this in the near term. In fact, the World Resources Institute just published an update of their report on the emission reductions that can be made using existing federal laws and state actions (no congressional action). The report outlines regulation of CO2 from existing power plants, a phaseout of HFC gases, reduced methane emissions, and increased efficiency standards as part of a “Go-getter scenario” that would get us a 17% emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. Meeting this reduction could help the U.S. maintain some credibility in the ongoing international climate negotiations while new political coalitions are built (or elections change the composition of Congress) such that a long-term climate change or clean energy bill with market mechanisms can be seriously considered.

The road to an 80% emissions reduction is not yet forgotten, but we still rarely acknowledge its technical difficulty. As National Journal points out: “Today, 95 percent of the nation’s cars are fueled by petroleum, while fewer than 5 percent are electric or hybrid vehicles. Fossil fuels generate 80 percent of our electricity, while only about 5 percent comes renewable sources such as wind and solar.” Of course, those 5 percent might have only been about 1% if not for the actions in Obama’s first term, including the $90 billion clean energy stimulus, doubling of fuel economy standards, creation of ARPA-E, mercury standards for power plants, and increased energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment. Credit is due to Obama, but we expect more action on one of the most important issues of our time.

While green groups lobby Obama to take meaningful executive actions, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us of the unpredictability of energy markets. No one knew that Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, Keystone XL, or the Arab Spring were going to happen when Obama came into office in 2009, and who knows what may happen during his second term to shake up the energy and climate sphere. Levi notes: “There is a tendency to focus on tactical decisions, but when circumstances change, it’s leaders’ much broader strategic outlooks that shape how they respond.” Indeed, we are going to need both near-term tactical decisions as well as a long-term strategic outlook to shape future actions.

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