News Column

Obama's Climate-change Plan Lags California's

June 26, 2013
environment

The plan President Obama outlined Tuesday to fight global warming represents a major step forward for the federal government.

But by California's standards, it's practically old hat.

And the state's efforts to combat climate change remain more ambitious than Obama's plan, unveiled in a speech at Georgetown University.

The president wants to limit carbon dioxide emissions from both new and older power plants, which produce about 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas releases. California has a limit of sorts, imposed in 2007.

Obama sees natural gas, which gives off half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, as a "transition fuel" to a cleaner future powered by renewable energy sources. California already relies on natural gas for nearly half of its electricity, uses very little coal and boasts far more solar power installations than any other state. Nationwide, natural gas supplies 30 percent of the country's electricity, with coal providing 37 percent.

Obama wants buildings to use less energy. California established its first building-efficiency standards in the 1970s and has slowly tightened them ever since.

Most importantly, California has created a cap-and-trade system to slowly cut greenhouse gas emissions across the state's entire economy.

Obama and congressional Democrats tried to establish a national cap-and-trade system early in his first term, only to see the effort crash and burn. It is precisely because Congress will no longer touch cap and trade -- or the oft-discussed alternative, a national carbon tax -- that Obama chose to push forward on the more narrowly focused policies he touted Tuesday.

Facing reality

The president's environmental supporters would have preferred something bigger. They badly want a nationwide price on carbon dioxide emissions, either through a tax or a cap-and-trade market.

But they also understand the near-impossibility of achieving that, given the adamant opposition of congressional Republicans, some of whom continue to say global warming doesn't exist. That wasn't a problem in California, in 2006, when the state's Democratic Legislature and Republican governor adopted AB32, California's landmark climate change law, which eventually led to the state's cap-and-trade system.

'Need to act now'

"There's no question that the best way to do this would have been with comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation," said Bob Deans, director of federal communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But you know, the president gave Congress four years to act. I think this is recognizing that the crisis is here now, and we need to act now."

The president's plan represents an end-run around Congress, focusing on steps he and his administration can take without sweeping legislation. In his address to Georgetown students, Obama repeated his interest in a broader, "market-based approach" to cutting greenhouse gas emissions with Congress' help. But he said the world couldn't afford to wait.

"I still want to see that happen -- I'm willing to work with anyone to make that happen," Obama said. "But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock."

And while he called on Republicans to work with him, he said he had no patience remaining for people who insist the Earth isn't warming or that mankind isn't responsible.

"We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," Obama said. "Sticking your head in the sand may make you feel safer, but it won't protect you from the coming storm."

The speech drew jeers from congressional Republicans, who said the president is trying to circumvent the legislative process, and several conservative think tanks that insist man-made global warming is either a hoax or overblown.

Tough criticism

"The president promised three years ago that he would find another way to 'skin the cat' after the twin defeat of his cap-and-trade legislation and the loss of the House majority in the 2010 midterms," said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. "Today we learn again what we already knew -- President Obama is hostile to affordable energy sources and will use the full force of government to punish the millions of American men and women who work in these industries."

Obama's plan calls for setting greenhouse gas limits on both new and existing power plants, a move that could push many coal-fired plants out of operation. Construction of new coal plants has largely come to a stop, because of low natural gas prices. Analysts say that cutting power plant emissions is perhaps the biggest single step Obama can take without Congress' cooperation to fight climate change, similar in scope to his decision in 2010 to raise fuel-economy standards in cars.

In 2007, California adopted rules that bar the state's utility companies from buying power from any facilities that produce more carbon dioxide than a plant burning natural gas. Coal plants can only meet the standard by capturing their greenhouse gas emissions and storing them underground, a technology still considered far too expensive for commercial use.

Obama wants to greatly expand the amount of renewable energy generated on public lands by 2020, giving the Department of the Interior a goal of adding enough solar power plants, wind farms and geothermal facilities to power more than 6 million homes.

He also committed the federal government to getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and installing 3 gigawatts of renewable generation on military bases. A gigawatt is roughly the output of a nuclear reactor.

California's requirements

California's big, investor-owned utility companies get roughly 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, and state law will force them to hit 33 percent by the decade's end.

"I understand the politics will be tough," Obama said Tuesday. "The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There's no army to defeat, no peace treaty to sign. Our progress here will be measured differently, in crises averted, a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal?"



Source: (c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services.