Obama Barrels Ahead: Climate Plan Won't 'Pause for Partisan Gridlock'

WASHINGTON – President Obama announced an initiative to force a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants -- without seeking congressional approval -- as part of an effort to address global climate change.

In an address delivered on a sweltering summer day at Georgetown University, the president also said he will block approval of the Keystone XL pipeline if studies show it “significantly exacerbates” the production of greenhouse gases that he maintains contribute to global warming.

Obama told those assembled, which included a substantial number of students, that the nation must act – 97 percent of scientists, including some who originally disputed the data, agree the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it, he said.

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late,” Obama said. “And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

The president’s decision to curtail greenhouse gas emissions comes as no surprise. In his State of the Union address in February, Obama made it clear that the Environmental Protection Agency would promulgate tough new regulations regarding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions if Congress failed to act. Lawmakers haven’t addressed the issue.

EPA has hinted over the past several months that it is contemplating tougher air restrictions on existing power plants – a move that critics fear will set standards impossible to meet and force several facilities to shut down.

The EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act as a result of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In doing so the administration doesn’t have to seek a go-ahead from Congress on the steps it is contemplating.

“This is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock,” the president said.

Obama’s remarks met with immediate criticism, particularly from members of Congress who hail from coal-producing states. Coal-burning power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions and are now a specific target of the administration. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the administration’s initiative will hurt the economy by forcing up energy costs.

“Declaring a ‘War on Coal’ is tantamount to declaring a war on jobs,” McConnell said. “It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy.”

The new White House policy represents a “unilateral economic surrender,” McConnell said, citing experts who maintain that any climate policy that does not include massive energy-consumers like China and India is “essentially meaningless.”

“Americans want common-sense policies to make energy cleaner and more affordable,” McConnell said. “The operative phrase being common-sense -- because Americans are also deeply concerned about jobs and the economy. That’s what the president should be focused on. Incredibly, it appears to be the furthest thing from his mind.”

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, was equally dismissive of the president’s views and announced plans to hold a hearing on the administration’s initiative.

“The president’s action plan seeks to limit our nation’s fuel choices and make coal-fired electricity generation in this country extinct, despite the fact that coal is our largest source of electricity and one of the nation’s most abundant and affordable resources,” Whitfield said. “This is absurd when you consider that man-made carbon only accounts for a very small percentage of all global emissions. We will continue our aggressive oversight over EPA’s rules to help prevent destructive consequences on jobs and the economy.”

Under the plan, Obama is directing the EPA to work closely with states, industry and other stakeholders to develop carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants by June 2014. The new rules would take effect sometime in 2015. The president set a goal of reducing the nation’s total carbon dioxide output by at least three billion metric tons by 2030.

The president also seeks to make further investment in clean and renewable energies, doubling energy captured from the wind and sun. The Department of the Interior has been directed to allow wind, solar and similar projects to operate on public lands, issuing enough permits to power more than 6 million homes by 2020.

The package expresses the need to “couple action at home with leadership internationally. America must help forge a truly global solution to this global challenge by galvanizing international action to significantly reduce emissions, prepare for climate impacts, and drive progress through the international negotiations.”

As a result, the U.S. will stop financing new coal-fired plants overseas “except for the most efficient coal technology available in the world's poorest countries or facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies.” The White House also committed to expanding international initiatives with China, India and other countries to reduce greenhouse gases.

In seeking to reduce emissions, Obama cited studies that show the levels of carbon pollution in the atmosphere have increased dramatically and that the 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. In 2012, temperatures in some ocean regions reached record highs and Arctic ice shrank to its smallest size on record -- faster than most models predicted, he said. Ocean levels are rising – the sea level in New York Harbor is a foot higher than it was a century ago.

The National Climatic Data Center maintains that 2011 and 2012 had some of the most extreme weather events — including major droughts, heat waves, storms tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires — in the nation’s history, resulting in $60 billion in damages.

“I am convinced this is the fight America can, and will, lead in the 21st century,” Obama said. “And I’m convinced this is a fight that America must lead.  But it will require all of us to do our part. We’ll need scientists to design new fuels, and we’ll need farmers to grow new fuels. We’ll need engineers to devise new technologies, and we’ll need businesses to make and sell those technologies. We’ll need workers to operate assembly lines that hum with high-tech, zero-carbon components, but we’ll also need builders to hammer into place the foundations for a new clean energy era.”

On the Keystone pipeline, a proposed project that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama said he will only approve construction if it’s in the national interest.

“And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” he said. “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. It’s relevant.”

Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the president’s position may ultimately prove beneficial to pipeline construction.

If the Keystone XL pipeline were to operate at full capacity until the end of this century, Knappenberger said, “it would, worst case, raise the global average surface temperature by about 1/100th of a degree Celsius. So after nearly 100 years of full operation, the Keystone XL’s impact on the climate would be inconsequential and unmeasurable.”