Why Obama Might Actually be the Environmental President
Jonathan Chiat: nymag.com
After Obama’s original cap-and-trade plan failed, he started using the agency regulatory powers directly. (This is how Obama has been able to issue new regulations on cars, fuel, appliances, and future power plants.)
So far, there is one hole in his regulatory agenda: power plants that currently exist. This is, unfortunately, a very large hole, as these plants, mostly coal, emit 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Coal is so inherently dirty that no available technology can prevent a plant from emitting unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases. You can require more-efficient cars or more-efficient refrigerators, and the industry will respond. You can’t really require coal plants to be anything more than slightly cleaner; it’s just physically impossible. The only meaningful standard one could impose for a coal plant would result in all of America’s coal plants shutting down—which, even if phased in slowly, would carry large costs and likely provoke a revolt from people suddenly staring at huge electric bills. The EPA’s choice, as environmental writer David Roberts has put it, appears to be “either a firecracker or a nuke.”
During Obama’s first term, the nuke was useful, as nukes tend to be, only as a threat. The idea was so abhorrent to power companies and some Republicans that it brought them to the bargaining table during the cap-and-trade negotiations. When negotiations collapsed, the prevailing assumption was that the ability to regulate existing plants had become a useless tool, paradoxically too powerful to actually deploy.
Then, a few weeks after last year’s election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions. It sounds simple, but this was a conceptual breakthrough. Much like a cap-and-trade bill, it would allow market signals to indicate the most efficient ways for states to hit their targets—instead of shutting coal plants down, some utilities might pay consumers to weatherize their homes, while others might switch some of their generators over to cleaner fuels. The flexibility of the scheme would, in turn, reduce the costs passed on to consumers. Here is a way for Obama to use his powers—his own powers, unencumbered by the morass of a dysfunctional Congress—in such a way that is neither as ineffectual as a firecracker nor as devastating as a nuke: The NRDC calculates its plan would reduce our reliance on coal by about a quarter and national carbon emissions by 10 percent. This is the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era. The prospect, for environmentalists, is exhilarating but also harrowing. The struggle will be lengthy, waged largely behind closed doors, and its outcome won’t be known until the Obama presidency is nearly over.
Highly recommend reading the entire article; there is reason to hope that the Kochs and their minions can be thwarted.