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June 26, 2013

Obama Directs EPA to Use Clean Air Act to Regulate Emissions
    by Robert Kropp

Acknowledging that Congress is likely to persist in failing to act on climate change, the President decides that executive action is needed to address a growing crisis whose effects are already being felt. -- Climate change was barely mentioned during the last Presidential campaign, so it was heartening to hear President Obama give it central pride of place in his second inaugural address. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in his speech.

How he proposed to get that done remained unclear at the time as it was evident by then that the Republicans, bolstered by the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry and the US Chamber of Commerce, were not at all interested in acting decisively on the issue. In its first term the Obama administration had made some modest actions through regulation to attempt to decrease emissions. Ambitious fuel economy goals were established, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new rules for mercury emissions and greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting from the largest emitters. Obama's 2009 economic stimulus also provided an estimated $90 billion for renewable energy technologies.

But there has been little discernible effort toward meaningful climate legislation and the intransigence of US negotiators at climate talks in South Africa and Brazil prevented meaningful action on climate change from being accomplished. Furthermore, the fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast, remains undetermined. Meanwhile, global emissions of GHGs continue to rise.

In a major speech delivered at Georgetown University this week, Obama proposed rules that would limit the amount of carbon emissions from power plants, which are responsible for 40% of the nation's emissions.

“Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero,” Obama said. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

Obama said that he is directing the EPA to pollution standards for both new and existing power plants, basing its authority to do so on the Clean Air Act of 1970.

And referring to the Keystone pipeline, Obama said, “Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

The President also said his administration will encourage the development of renewable energy sources on public lands, and develop new energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.

“We’ll also encourage private capital to get off the sidelines and get into these energy-saving investments,” he added.

Sustainable investors have been calling for such measures for years, and were quick to applaud Obama's statements. In a press release, US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment stated that it “applauds President Obama’s plan to address climate change,which sets the United States on the necessary path to a lower carbon economy.”

Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wrote, “We can’t end climate change overnight, but by taking the steps laid out in the president’s plan, we can help protect our families and shield our economy from more extreme weather. The president deserves our gratitude and backing as he moves to tackle the defining issue of our time.”

And Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, wrote, “Climate change is threatening our economy, and a bold response is warranted. The President’s plan may not be perfect, but it gives the electric power sector the information it needs to build solutions for the 21st century economy.”

During his speech, Obama noted the enthusiastic reaction of many American businesses to the Climate Declaration, a climate initiative launched by Ceres and its Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) coalition. “Recently, more than 500 businesses, including giants like GM and Nike, issued a Climate Declaration, calling action on climate change 'one of the great economic opportunities of the 21st century',” he said.

“I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real,” Obama added. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

Not surprisingly, that meeting appears to be underway. Casting the midterm elections of 2010 as a statement of opposition to climate legislation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The president still wants to push ahead and ignore the will of the legislative branch, the branch closest to the people. Whether the American people want it or not, he says he’ll do it by presidential fiat.”

“He may as well call his plan what it is: a plan to ship jobs overseas,” McConnell added. “Basically, it’s unilateral economic surrender.”

And Thomas Donohue, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, stated, “The president’s plan runs a serious risk of punishing Americans with higher energy bills, fewer jobs, and a weaker economy, while delivering negligible benefits to the environment.”

Some supporters of Obama's proposal noted that they did not go far enough in some areas. “The speech wasn’t without its misssteps,” stated. “The President announced loan guarantees for so-called 'advanced' fossil fuel projects, and gave shout-outs to natural gas from fracking. On the whole, the plans he laid out weren’t nearly ambitious enough.”

However, the advocacy group continued, “The President's speech has given us a new glimmer of hope.”

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