Obama swings executive sword to curb power plant carbon emissions in ‘historic’ climate speech

Publish date: June 25, 2013

In remarks hailed by many environmentalists as 'historic,' US president Barack Obama in a long awaited speech on his efforts against climate change declared that the debate on whether global warming and humanity’s role in it was now over.

In the major speech delivered in sweltering heat at Washington’s Georgetown University, Obama warned that the effects of climate change will be deep and disastrous and urged the country to take action before it was too late. 

“The question is not whether we need to act – the overwhelming judgment of science, of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements has put all that to rest,” he said in internationally televised remarks. “Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest; they have acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.”

He even saved a little mockery for those who still deny that climate change is anthorpogenic, saying that he “doesn’t have much patience” for anyone who refuses to acknowledge the problem. 

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society,” he said.

Climate change no longer a topic of debate

In many respects, the speech also acknowledged that the time to reduce the impact of climate change had already passed for much of the world.

“Those who are feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it, they are busy dealing with it,” he said.   

The speech was clearly a rostrum for Obama to pressure lawmakers to action as he wielded the sword of executive power. His remarks evidenced that he wants lawmakers to adopt a market based approach for capping carbon emissions and said that he will work with anyone to break the bipartisan divide that has thus far made such advances impossible. 

“I still want to see that happen. I’m willing to work with anyone to make that happen. But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock,” he said.

Revisiting old priorities

As a whole, the speech represented Obama’s most prominent effort yet to deliver on a major priority that he outlined during his first presidential campaign and to which he recommitted at the start of his second term – fighting climate change at home and abroad and girding the loins of American communities against its already visible effects. For much of the latter part of Obama’s first term and during his campaign for reelection, environmentalists were dismayed by how Obama’s goals never seemed to materialized.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge said the speech had done much to brush away those resentments.

“This is a remarkable occasion,” said Hauge. “If the Obama Climate Plan is followed up by real action, this will be an historic speech.”

Daniel Weiss, an energy and environment expert with the Center for American Progress in Washington told Bellona by telephone that he and his organization gave Obama’s speech “high marks, especially for his insistence on the reduction of carbon at power plants.”

Stay tuned for more details

Alden Meyer, an expert on international and domestic climate change policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists told Bellona in a telephone interview from Washington that,“Overall, I think it’s a solid plan, with more details to come,” said Meyer. “He hit all the right notes.”

Meyer noted, though, that the speech set no benchmarks or schedules for carbon emissions reductions. “This falls under the ‘still to be worked out’ category,” he said.

He did say, however, that he was glad to see so much focus placed on climate change mitigation efforts and preparing for the impact that climate change is inevitably poised to bring. 

“This is a fresh approach that the administration has not been taking yet, and he did the right thing by ackonwledging first responders, like firemen and goverment disaster agencies who are dealing with the effects of climate related catastrophes” he said. “Leapfrogging over the debate over climate change to discussing the impacts of it that we are already experiencing is not only a good political move, but a good policy move as well, which is rare.” 

Everything old new again – in uniform wrapper

While much of the president’s climate action plan is not exactly new, as Meyer pointed out, it does highlight the enormous number of executive actions in the works and ties them together into a coherent package. 

“It attempts to systematically mobilize all the tools of the executive branch to rapidly deploy clean energy solutions and more modern and resilient infrastructure,” Bracken Hendricks, also with the Center for American Progress, said in a statement to “It advances very concrete, measurable, and immediate steps. It builds on what’s working, and it focuses the nation’s attention on how to move forward together without delay using all the tools at our disposal.” 

By and large, Obama has been stymied by a Congress that is unable to pass anything substantive on climate change – let alone admit that it’s a problem. Obama explained in his recent State of the Union address that he would do as much as possible with his executive authority to address that issue. 

After a period of silence on what executive actions Obama might take, the White House released an official plan (also downloadable to right in PDF form) of action early Tuesday morning US time.  

Biggest achievement – aiming at factory carbon emissions

Obama zeroed in heavily on the role carbon bases US power plants play in the country’s carbon footprint, and the “limitless dumping of carbon pollution,” and announced he intended to direct his administration to launch the first ever federal regulation on carbon dioxide emitted by new and existing power plants. Currently while the US limits other forms of pollution from power plants, there are no regulations governing the amount of carbon emissions plants can spew into the atmosphere, he said.  

“Today, for the sake of our children and the safety of all Americans, I am direction the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to put an end to limitless dumping from our power plants and put into place and complete new standards for new and existing power plants,” he told the audience.

Dan Lashof, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington said: “The country is facing a threat; the president is facing facts.”

“This plan takes aim at the heart of the problem: the dangerous carbon pollution from our power plants,”added Lashof. “Reducing that pollution is the most important step we can take, as a nation, to stand up to climate change.” 

International teamwork now a priority

Obama also promise to work in conjunction with other countries, namely China and India, to reach agreements on limiting emissions of methane and black carbon, or soot. These and a host of others are known as “short-lived” climate pollutants, which, though they linger in the atmosphere for abbreviated periods, are equally, if not more, potent pollutants than carbon emissions.  

Boost of renewable output on federal lands

Other aspects of Obama’s plan will increase renewable energy production on federal lands, boost energy efficiency standards, and brace communities to deal with higher temperatures and the attendant weather fluctuations that will increase the need for buttressed disaster response.

“We are really encouraged that Obama now intend to tighten regulations for existing coal power plants,” said Svend Søyland, Bellona’s senior advisor on international energy and climate issues.

“This together with public land permits for renewables will likely result in bigger pockets of price parity between fossil and renewables,” he said, adding, “We are also happy to see a renewed effort to realize the potential of carbon capture and storage.” 

By expanding permitting on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energies such as wind and solar to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020 – doubling the electric capacity currently avaialable from federal lands.

Loan guarantees and a plug for CCS

He also announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies that can prevent carbon dioxide from power plants from reaching the atmosphere, including technologies geared toward “the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases” – a direct plug for carbon capture and storage. 

But the true crux of Obamas plan is the controls he plans to put in place on new and existing carbon-based power plants. Forty percent of American carbon dioxide emissions, and a third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, the Associated Press quoted the Energy Information Administration as saying.

Obama has proposed controls on new plants already, but they have been delayed and not yet finalized. 

Keystone XL still uncertain

Obama also broke a long silence on his deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline project – a pipeline whose potential approval has carved deep fissures between environmental activists and the energy sector.

The White House has insisted that the State Department is responsible for making the decision independently, but Obama told the Georgetown audience that he is instructing State to approve it only if it does not add to overall net emissions of greenhouse gasses produced by the US. 

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s best interest,” he said. “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Bellona’s Hauge said, “I wouldn’t bet on Keystone,” and the data back up his assertion that the pipeline is a bad pony. 

A number of prominent Democrats – as well as 145 veterans of Obama’s election campaigns – have come out against the pipeline, which its proponents cast as an invaluable souce of oil recovery from freindly nations. But the fact that the oil would run to the US gulf coast strongly suggests it would first and foremost be an export product. 
Further, bringing tar sands oil to market burns more hydrocarbons, which is the dirtiest type of oil, leaving an enormous carbon footprint, Dr. Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress has told Bellona.
The EPA has additionally calculated that on a well-to-tank basis, tar sands oil emits 82 percent more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude oil, Inside Climate News reported

A number of prominent Democrats – as well as 145 veterans of Obama’s election campaigns – have come out against the pipeline, which its proponents paint as an invaluable souce of oil recovery from freindly nations. But the fact that the oil would run to the US gulf coast strongly suggests it would first and foremost be an export product. 

Further, bringing tar sands oil to market burns more hydrocarbons, which is the dirtiest type of oil, leaving an enormous carbon footprint, the Center for American Progress’s Dr. Andrew Light has told Bellona. The EPA has additionally calculated that on a well-to-tank basis, tar sands oil emits 82 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil, Inside Climate News reported.

What was left out

One thing Obama failed to mention was his earlier promises to slash subsidies for fossil fuel production in the US, something Bellona’s Søyland characterized as ”one glaring omission.”

Meyer additionally noted that there was very little in the speech on climate financing. 

“There was a reiteration of the fast track financing [to developing nations] for climate mitigation efforts developed at COP15, but there wasn’t much in the way of more creative financing,” he said. “For instance, there was silence on maritime and aviation carbon taxes, and no real acknowledgement that fast track financing is going to have to look beyond national treasuries – so I would give [Obama’s speech] a grade of ‘incomplete’ there.” 

The fast track financing agreed to at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which would allocate funding to develping nations to fight the already apparent onslaught of climate change, has continued to be a major bone of contention at subsequent climate summits. Richer nations, including the US, along with its European counterparts, has failed to deliver, citing domestic fiscal shortages as well as the lack of a framework under which such funding should be delivered.

Meyer said that the Union of Concerned Scientists would also like to see a carbon tax, but excused Obama’s failure to mention it, as imposing such a tax would require an act of Congress – the very legislation that Obama sought in his first term and to which he is now inviting all willing participants. 

Søyland said that, “As an NGO member of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, Bellona welcomes the drive to work with China as well as India to reduce both Methane and Black Carbon Emissions.” 

“Both are very aggressive but luckily short-lived climate pollutants,” he said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Meyer also praised the international engagement suggested in Obama’s speech.

“A lot of attention was given to international cooperation […] so Obama is on the hook with international leaders,” said Meyer.

Future Republicans may do some rethinking

Søyland added that, “it will be exciting to see what the GOP and backwards industry lobbyist will come up with in the coming days.”

But the grind from the Republican side of the aisle was already generating steam as Obama spoke, saying the plan was a “war on coal” and a “war on jobs,” AP said.

Meyer suggested however that if the EPA measures do work, and climate degeneration continues as it is, “the Republicans that we could see in Congress in 2015 or 2016 may understand they are looking at a very different landscape and their point of view could shift dramatically.”

“There is nothing like drought, wildfires, and superstorms to focus attention,” he said. 

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