What to expect – and not expect – from Obama’s climate push
Environmental advocates are eagerly awaiting—with both hope and trepidation—President Barack Obama’s speech on climate change scheduled for Tuesday at George Washington University. Expectations based on hints from the administration, including the president himself, are that he will make announcements regarding limits on carbon emissions from electricity-generating plants, expanded renewable energy operations on federal land, higher energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings and possibly some plans for adapting to, and protecting from, climate changes we know are on the way or already happening.
Probably not mentioned will be the Keystone XL pipeline. And even if it is, it won’t be an up-or-down announcement on the controversial conduit designed to move hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands petroleum from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast every day. The reason is simple: The mandated process for reviewing such cross-border projects is not yet complete. And it’s not likely to be complete until late July or early August.
That process includes a review of the more than one million public comments submitted on the draft version of the final Environmental Impact Statement. Subsequently, the State Department must assess whether the tar sands pipeline is in our national interest and thus qualifies for the presidential permit that all such cross-border pipelines require. All those who started demanding an immediate decision from the president the minute the draft EIS was released March 1 are essentially asking that he go around that process.
The pipeline is not in the national interest, nor in the planet’s interest, not environmentally and not economically. But what is very much in the interest of both is what appears to be the key element of Obama’s Tuesday speech: controlling carbon emissions.
This isn’t something that has to be cleared through Congress. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The 50-year-old Clean Air Act and its subsequent amendments don’t just give the okay for the executive branch to implement controls on pollution, they require such action. And, indeed, some environmental advocates—like Michael Northrop and David Sassoon, argued even before Obama was elected that the next president should, in his first 100 days, take action on under the act to curb power-plant emissions of CO2 because Congress probably wouldn’t do so. That action by the president obviously didn’t happen.
Power-plant emissions account for about 40 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions. Presidential action alone could cut those emissions by 26 percent, which would cut overall U.S. emissions by 10 percent. Not as much by a long shot as is needed, but at least moving us off the dime in the right direction after years of dilly-dallying.
There has been much speculation that the actions announced in Obama’s speech Tuesday will be used as a trade-off for a future decision approving the Keystone XL pipeline. More than a few pipeline foes have said they won’t be appeased by such a move if it is on the White House agenda. For instance:
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a rising climate leader in Congress, said it would make little sense to approve a pipeline that undermines the progress Obama and his aides hope to make.“I do think that if they’re serious about carbon, and then they let Keystone go, it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s going on because the two are so in conflict,” Whitehouse said Sunday on the program Platts Energy Week.
Indeed, the two are in conflict. And a decision in favor of the pipeline, while making Exxon, the Koch brothers and other fossil fools happy, is likely to enrage many environmentalists, including gobs of young people whose first entry into politics has been because of climate change in general and the pipeline in particular. But at a panel discussion on climate change Saturday at Netroots Nation in San Jose, California, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawai`i and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, both Democratic foes of the pipeline, noted that even if Obama makes the wrong decision, activists should not wallow in despair but move on to the next climate-change fight.