Obama’s Last Shot
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Friday April 18th, after the print version of this story had closed, the State Department announced that the decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline would be delayed due to legal challenges to the pipeline’s route, effectively putting off resolution of this controversial issue until after the election. The text has been updated to reflect these latest developments.
President Obama is not even halfway through his second term yet, but you can almost feel the cement hardening around his feet. The glory days of hope and change have faded, his approval rating has flat-lined below 50 percent, and jockeying for 2016 has begun in earnest. But for Obama, the game ain’t over yet. In the next few months, he will take one of the biggest gambles of his presidency by testing the radical proposition that even SUV-loving Americans believe that global warming is real and are ready to do something about it.
It’s a gamble that could have a profound impact on energy politics, our economy and our ability to stabilize the climate. But if the president is wrong, it could not only cost his party control of the Senate this fall but also blow the last opportunity we have to save ourselves from life on a superheated planet. “It’s a transformative moment,” says Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island in what may be the understatement of the century.
The springboard of Obama’s big leap is to use his presidential powers to effectively hasten the phase-out of dirty coal from America’s energy system. Right now, coal-fired power plants generate about 40 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and are by far the largest single source of heat-trapping gases. Last year, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to develop new rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants. These rules, which the EPA will make public in early June, are fraught with political peril, not least because they will stoke up talk of a War on Coal, which Republicans will argue is code for a War on the American Way of Life.
At the same time, the president is likely to announce his decision on the northern leg of the Keystone XL, the hugely controversial 1,179-mile-long pipeline that would bring tar-sands oil down from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. Although no final decision has been made, two high-level sources in the Obama administration told me recently that the president has all but decided to deny the permit for the pipeline – a dramatic move that would light up Democratic voters and donors while further provoking the wrath of Big Oil. Finally, Obama is positioning the U.S. to play a key role in negotiations on a new global-climate treaty that will begin next year, establishing American leadership on climate issues and giving him one last chance to lead the world to a cooler future before he leaves the Oval Office.
Obama’s big leap is driven by two factors. The first is that the politics of climate and energy are changing fast. “Nature has a vote now,” says Chris Lehane, a political consultant who works with Tom Steyer, a hedge-fund-billionaire-turned-climate-activist. “People can look outside their window and see that the climate is changing.” The most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are authored by the world’s top scientists, have erased any doubt that climate change is real and the risks – famine, drought, flooding – are increasing with each passing day. But at the same time, solutions are becoming more obvious: The price of clean energy has fallen dramatically in recent years, solar panels and wind turbines are popping up everywhere, and the path to a post-fossil-fuel world is suddenly opening before us. “The cost curve of clean-energy technology is bending down quickly, while the rate of deployment is going up,” says Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who points out that wind now generates four percent of the electricity in the U.S., and the price of solar panels has fallen 75 percent in the past five years. “Look at what’s happened with LED light bulbs, with photovoltaics. The clean-energy economy isn’t something that’s happening in the future. It’s here today.”
Obama’s other motivation is the judgment of history. When he took office in 2009, he had four major tasks on his to-do list: pump up the economy, get out of Iraq, fix health care and take action on climate change. He put a lot of political muscle into the first three, but on climate change, it was mostly poetic speeches, under-the-radar regulatory reform and billions of dollars in loan guarantees for clean-energy projects. The president’s supporters boast that he’s already done more to tackle climate change than any president before him, but that’s not saying much. He avoided risky political battles and too often treated the greatest challenge human civilization has ever faced as if it were no more urgent than reforming teachers’ unions.
Now Obama has one last shot. “Taking action on climate is one of the most important goals in the president’s second term,” John Podesta, counselor to the president and his point man on climate policy, told me a few weeks ago. “He feels a profound and urgent obligation to get as much done as he can before he leaves office.”
In his first term, Obama tried and failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon pollution from gas and coal-fired power plants. It was one of his biggest defeats and effectively killed any action on climate change for the rest of his term. This time around, he’s cutting Congress out of the process altogether, vowing to use the regulatory powers of the Clean Air Act to crack down on carbon-spewing power plants. He signaled his seriousness by appointing a first-rate Cabinet to advise him during his second term, one that is, in some ways, even more impressive than the team he had assembled for the first term: Moniz, a nuclear physicist and former MIT professor; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state; and EPA veteran Gina McCarthy as the agency’s administrator.
The choice of McCarthy to head the EPA was particularly important because it’s her job to guide the new rules on carbon pollution from power plants through the agency’s bureaucracy and to defend them in public. McCarthy, who grew up in a working-class mill town near Boston, has a kind of gruff charm that suggests she’s anything but a tree-hugging elitist. Within the environmental world, she was best known for her tireless and effective work as assistant administrator at the EPA to limit mercury pollution from coal plants. Now Obama is calling on her to do the same thing with carbon pollution. “The president made it clear to me when we talked about the job that passing carbon rules for power plants was his top priority in the second term,” McCarthy told me. Not surprisingly, her confirmation hearing in Congress was one of the most contentious in history, stretching out for 136 days.
The 600 or so coal plants in the U.S. are responsible for nearly a third of all carbon pollution in this country. But they are the hardest to go after, in part because the plants that pollute the most are often the plants that are most profitable for the utilities that run them. Big Coal was a major factor in derailing cap-and-trade legislation; under the new regulatory approach, this becomes less of a problem because the rules aren’t voted on by congressmen who play golf with coal lobbyists on weekends. But setting these new rules will nonetheless require all the political finesse McCarthy can muster. One dilemma: How do you make sure coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia are not hit harder than clean-energy states like Arizona and California? One solution is to set overall carbon standards for each state, then let states decide for themselves how to meet those standards, either through efficiency or trading with other states or switching from coal to natural gas. In this way, you can get big reductions while still allowing states flexibility. How big the reductions turn out to be depends on how the rules are written. A plan proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which uses a framework that’s similar to the proposed new EPA rules, estimates that 470 million to 700 million tons of carbon pollution can be eliminated per year by 2020, equivalent to the emissions from 95 million to 130 million autos. NRDC calculates the plan would result in up to $63 billion in health and environmental benefits and up to $120 billion in investments in energy efficiency and renewables.
Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras
Gustavo López Ospina
Pieter Jan Brouwer
Assistant: Emilia Romero
SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer.