By linking the release of carbon dioxide to air quality and then human health, the White House is taking an unusual and relatively untested legal route to reclaiming its environmental credentials. However, other key fossil fuel decisions are still to be taken in Washington that are making the president friends and enemies as he strives to regain global leadership. Jon Herbert reports.
What President Obama lacks is the comfort of a Climate Change Act making it mandatory for the Energy Secretary to meet carefully set out carbon reduction targets. Washington is not Westminster and the president has instead opted to rely on a fairly obscure piece of legislation to try to undo the Democrats’ humiliating 2010 defeat in Congress that would have limited CO2 emissions and allowed companies to buy and sell pollution permits.
His aim is a strategic cut in US carbon emissions by 2030. The target could be as high as 30%. In so doing, he hopes to re-position America as a global environmental champion, mindful that both China and India have recently made major commitments to greenhouse gas reductions. However, while his initiative is being applauded on the world stage as a significant boost to international action on climate change, it is also making powerful enemies at home who could still derail progress.
With two years of his second term left to go, the 44th president appears to be ready to use the power of his office rather than Capitol Hill to secure the measures against climate change that he promised when first entering the White House. The downside to his chosen route is that it can be contested in court — and almost certainly will be.
Many opponents have interpreted Mr Obama’s move as a declaration of open war on the powerful American coal industry, with economic prosperity and thousands of jobs in the balance as mid-term elections loom in November 2014. Some have accused the president of acting unconstitutionally and over-reaching the powers of his office. However, while attempting to take the side of virtue, the president must take an equally controversial and far-reaching decision in the very near future that is also proving to be very divisive.
Proponents say that is it nothing more than a perfectly safe and secure investment into America’s energy security at a time of growing instability in the Middle East. Nevertheless, opponents have described the proposal as plans for “… piping the dirtiest oil on the planet through the heart of America”.
Despite a year’s delay for further consideration, Mr Obama cannot put off for much longer the strategic decision of whether or not to approve the construction of the 1179-mile-long, so-called Keystone XL pipeline. If the answer is yes, this will carry some 830,000 barrels a day of heavy crude from Alberta in Canada across the international border to Nebraska, where it would then be moved through existing pipelines to Texas for refining.
President Obama wants to see a new set of rules come into action designed to curb CO2 emissions from 1600 coal-burning power stations that, together, are responsible for circa a third of the USA’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The enforcement vehicle would be the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is expected to issue an all-embracing target for power plants. However, it will then be up to individual states to decide how they plan to enforce the new rules.
Although the Democrats lost in Congress, the US Supreme Court did rule in 2007 that the EPA has the legal authority under the Clean Air Act to limit CO2 emissions. However, this is a seldom-used route with a sparse track record. The expectation is that strong legal challenges will tie any action up in detail for a long time to come. Before anything even begins to happen, there will be a year-long consultation, followed by another 12-month delay while states submit their proposals for review and approval. Options open to the individual states could include more nuclear power, natural gas, renewables, and extensive energy-efficiency measures. In addition, the EPA could accept carbon cap and trade (emissions trading) schemes.
Behind the whole strategy is the long-term question of whether the incoming 45th President of the United States will rescind or reinforce the measures, depending very much on which party and candidate wins office. However, if successful, the move would see a promise fulfilled that was initially made at the ill-fated 2009 climate change global summit in Copenhagen when the US target was to reduce overall carbon output by 2020 by 17%.
The backdrop to the new targets is significant. While they may sound ambitious, America has already made major cuts through the wide-scale use of gas fracking, which is seen as a net contributor to decarbonisation. Efficiency gains, renewables and natural gas have already achieved reductions of more than 15% over 2005 levels. The reality is that the USA is already some 50% of the way towards 30%. However, coal still accounts for 40% of US energy output and it is here that trouble could loom. The danger for the White House is that accusations of “war on coal” will go down very badly in the states of West Virginia and Kentucky where mining represents jobs and incomes. The power industry is also expected to warn that, if coal-fired stations are forced to close, the lights will go out for a lack of national generating capacity.
Many of the president’s staunchest critics simply do not accept the argument that man-made carbon emissions and global warming are linked. Instead, they are adamant that energy prices will rise at a time when economic recovery is still uncertain. Posterity will have to decide whether the president took a stand against a problem that, he says, threatens the well-being of the world, after he leaves office.
Meanwhile, the question of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is supported by US industry, lurks at the bottom Oval Office in-tray. Approval could have profound negative consequences, say many environmental campaigners. Both sides are building up pressure again, with a decision to be taken soon. Recently, a group of leading climate scientists urged the president to reject the pipeline plan on the grounds that it would increase America’s dependency on fossil fuels. However, another letter, this time from the provincial premier of Saskatchewan in Canada, has encouraged the president to say “yes” on the basis that it will guarantee a long-term secure energy supply from a friendly ally at a rate that is twice the current level of oil imports from the Persian Gulf!
President Obama has said that, for the project to be in the national interest, it must not significantly increase carbon pollution. However, a recent environmental impact statement released by the State Department says that approval would be “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States”.
For the president who has backed emissions reductions from cars and power plants, but supported oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, this is a profound question for his legacy. However, his pay-grade requires an answer.
The UK coal industry is in a very different position from its trans-Atlantic equivalent. Plans to delay the closure of two of the UK’s last three deep-level coal mines have hit an impasse. A £20 million private-sector plan to fund the managed closure of Kellingley pit in North Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire has recently been withdrawn. UK Coal, which presently owns the mines, now plans to close both by the end of 2015, with the loss of 1300 jobs; the Department of Energy and Climate Change has offered £10 million to help delay the closure.
The National Union of Mineworkers is considering an employee buyout of Kellingley. Employee-owned Hatfield colliery in South Yorkshire is now the UK’s last surviving deep mine.
Last updated on 15/07/2014
First published by Croner-i on 9 July 2014