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A Carbon Pollution Solution Worthy of a President

Pete Altman

Posted December 12, 2012

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In his first post-election news conference, President Obama made an important statement:

I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior, and carbon emissions … And as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.

A few weeks later, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) outlined a bold approach to curb carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by 26 percent in the short term, yielding huge public health benefits and sparking a job-creating dynamo in energy efficiency and clean energy manufacturing and production.

As NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner explained at a National Press Club news event on December 4th:

The President put climate change on the national agenda, and NRDC’s plan shows how the United States can make big reductions in carbon pollution that drive climate change, with a flexible approach that promotes clean energy investments and delivers big benefits for Americans’ health.  This year’s ravaging heat waves, drought, wildfires and Superstorm Sandy underscore why the nation must tackle head-on the biggest source of dangerous carbon pollution now.

News accounts of NRDC's innovative plan gave it the serious look that it deserved:

  • Environmental group seeks to curb emissions from existing power plants, Washington Post, 12/04/12. “The old coal plants emit 40 percent of the nation’s total emissions, and while the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed limits on new power plants, it has yet to address CO2 emissions from existing ones. The NRDC said that by 2020 its plan would help slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 26 percent, compared to 2005 levels, and by 17 percent from 2011 levels… Individuals in and close to the Obama administration have said that the EPA is considering ways to use the Clean Air Act to promote greater energy efficiency."
  • NRDC puts emissions plan on platter, PoliticoPro, 12/04/12 (subscription required.)  “For the first time since the March proposal for new power plants came out, EPA agreed to hear the greens out: EPA was briefed on NRDC’s plans last week, in advance of the group’s unveiling on Tuesday. Doniger met with EPA air chief Gina McCarthy on Nov. 26, according to her public schedule.  President Barack Obama last month made clear that climate change would take a backseat to measures focused on economic growth, but added he would support any proposals that ‘create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change.’  ‘This is a plan that does that,” Doniger said. “It’s good for the economy, good for jobs, good for clean energy.’”
  • Obama could cut emissions without Congress, group says, USA Today, 12/04/12. “How much can President Obama tackle climate change without Congress? Quite a lot, an environmental group says in proposing a new way to cut carbon emissions from power plants. President Obama could slash one-third of power plant emissions by 2025 without Congress' approval, a major environmental group said Tuesday. He could save at least $25 billion annually in reduced health and pollution costs by using the Clean Air Act to require that existing plants reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council. As nations meet this week in Doha, Qatar, to negotiate a climate change treaty and Obama prepares to begin a second term, the NRDC proposes a new U.S. approach that bypasses Capitol Hill. ‘We know where the pollution is. Now we have to go after it,’ Peter Lehner, the group's executive director, said.”

And those who had an opinion to offer in their columns clearly think the NRDC plan is an important new opening:

  • Obama can tackle climate in his second term, and he doesn’t need Congress to do it, Dave Roberts, Grist, 12/04/12.  “It is still possible for Barack Obama to secure an honorable climate legacy. He can dramatically reduce U.S. carbon emissions in his second term. And he can do it without help from Congress. He doesn’t even need a crafty new plan — the Natural Resources Defense Council has come up with one for him, based on a provision in the Clean Air Act (CAA). All he needs is political courage.”
  • A Path Forward for Obama on Carbon Emissions, Matthew Yglesias, Slate, 12/04/12.The Obama administration has two big leftover agenda items from its original 2009 hopes—climate change and comprehensive immigration reform. The White House has given every indication that what they'd like to pursue after the fiscal cliff is comprehensive immigration reform with climate basically languishing on the back-burner. But not only is climate arguably the more historically significant issue, it's the one in which the president has the most scope for action. On immigration he needs a deal with congress, and DC chatter aside I see zero evidence that a large bloc of John Boehner's caucus is feeling electoral pressure to liberalize immigration. On climate, by contrast, Obama can do a lot through executive Action. “
  • Using Federalism to Reduce Carbon Emissions, Mary Duenwald, Bloomberg/Views, 12/04/12.  “The Obama administration has taken important actions to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including instituting a 54.5-miles-per-gallon standard for cars and trucks by model year 2025 and working on rules for new power plants. Still, a big step -- one required by the Clean Air Act -- remains to be taken: restricting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. . . . Because power plants account for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the plan would have far-reaching effects. By 2020, the program could reduce U.S. CO2 emissions 17 percent from 2011 levels, according to the NRDC. It would cost about $4 billion annually, but would yield benefits worth at least six times as much -- including not only a reduction in the climate threat but also a lower incidence of asthma attacks and other medical problems. . . Energy companies can be expected to balk at this amount of greenhouse-gas reduction, arguing that it is too expensive or simply impossible. Perhaps they have other strategies they'd like to suggest. Ultimately, though, it is the EPA that will need to come up with a good, defensible plan. Next year would not be too soon.”
  • How to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 10 percent — without Congress, Brad Plumer, Washington Post/Wonkblog, 12/04/12. “The lawyers at the National Resources Defense Council say that it’s all quite legal under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which allows the EPA to regulate existing sources. But this is fairly unprecedented territory, and if the agency took this step it would almost certainly get litigated in courts. Now, the Obama administration isn’t necessarily planning to follow this exact proposal. Yet right now, the EPA is pondering how and whether to regulate carbon-dioxide from power plants and other stationary sources of pollution.”
  • NRDC's Plan to Reduce Power Plant Pollution,  Gina-Marie Cheeseman, Triple-Pundit blog, 12/12/12. In short, the NRDC plan would help the environment, create jobs for local economies, and bring health benefits to the American people.

We are grateful and pleased by the reception our proposal has received. More important, we are glad that others recognize that there are carbon pollution solutions worthy of a President; worthy of this President. President Obama can use the power of his office to lead America to rise to the obligation he himself has defined, the need to protect future generations from the rising temperatures of a warming planet.

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Michael BerndtsonDec 12 2012 12:38 PM

Question on the December 2012 NRDC report: who pays for abandon mine land reclamation and shuttered coal fired power plant site remediation? Or are we simply looking at controlling mechanisms for survivial: i.e., climate change more urgent than water and land. As coal is phases out in the US, wouldn't a mining company simply opt to declare bankruptcy and bolt from reclamation responsibilities. My gut says that most of the States have like zero balances in their set-aside funds. Here's an interesting article from the Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania) dated 8/13/12:

Copy/pasted from the website below:
Part of the pressure to hold the gas industry responsible for environmental stewardship flows from the failure to hold the coal industry responsible. The government has been primarily responsible for cleaning up the portion of the coal industry's mess that has been attended to so far, but now, its ability to continue doing so has been compromised by Congress.

A House-Senate conference committee that recently reconciled differences in transportation funding bills passed by each chamber, without debate or hearings, decided to raid the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund.

Money for the fund comes from a per-ton tax on coal production. It is collected by the federal government and distributed through former coal-mining states for projects to reclaim abandoned mine land.

The new law puts a $15 million-a-year cap on distributions to the states and allocates the rest of the money for unrelated projects.

Over 10 years, Pennsylvania stands to lose $178 million for mine reclamation projects, the second-highest amount after Wyoming's $700 million. Other states that would lose money are West Virginia, $102 million; Illinois, $55 million; Kentucky, $54 million; Ohio, $34 million; Indiana, $18 million; Virginia, $16 million; Alabama, $15 million; and 13 other states, an aggregate $50 million.

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