Washington, D.C., July 9, 2014 – President Obama made a major political mistake in using the ambiguous authorities in the 1990 Clean Air Act to take on the task of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. Today, it looks like Obama’s petulant push to go where Congress wouldn’t on climate policy is paying off for Republicans, not Obama’s Democratic backers.
Let’s be clear: Obama’s policies aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, by themselves, have nothing to do with changing the direction of the global climate. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are large notionally. They are insignificant globally. What the U.S. does in the years or decades ahead is trivial compared to what China and India and the rest of the world do.
That said, the Obama administration, acknowledging its inability to get greenhouse gas legislation through Congress, took upon itself (with an assist from a Supreme Court that seems not to have wrestled with the technical issues with any rigor) to assert executive branch authority. That was a mistake for a couple of reasons.
First, the Clean Air Act, with roots in the 1970s and 1980s, is ill-suited to dealing with CO2 emissions. Despite the court’s decision, CO2 is not a conventional pollutant. It is a ubiquitous chemical molecule essential to life on the planet, which also has impacts on the global environment. As an aside, in the heat of the debate over greenhouse gas emissions it’s easy to forget that the most important greenhouse gas, in terms quantity, is also an essential component of life on the planet: water vapor.
The clean air law, amended most recently in 1990, aims at reducing conventional pollutants – defined in the law as “criteria pollutants” – that have unequivocal harms. These are carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulates. Carbon dioxide (and water vapor) fit uneasily into the regime the clean air law outlines.
The conventional pollutants are controllable through understood technologies and well-defined regulatory models. The controls are based on state programs to implement federal mandates. As the EPA’s proposed CO2 rules demonstrate, this model is not adept at dealing with a ubiquitous product of combustion that is inherent in the burning of fossil fuels. New legislation – whether a carbon tax or some other approach – would be far more efficient and effective than the EPA plan.
Beyond that, the politics of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants – that is, from coal-fired plants – are extremely corrosive. The Obama administration, facing the loss of Democratic Party control of the Senate this fall, probably tipped the scale against itself with its coal policy. To give the administration its due, the White House saw that the only path to the outcome it wanted for greenhouse gases was administrative action, regardless of how awkward that might be. The result of that executive branch action seriously jeopardizes the administration’s control of the Senate and its ability to achieve goals in many policy arenas far more important than narcissistic action on greenhouse gases.
The uproar from coal country over the administration’s proposed policy (which wouldn’t go into effect until after Obama has left Washington, leading one pundit to call the plan “land-mines for Hillary”) has thrown Congress into another bout of gridlock and a possible government shutdown. While an earlier budget deal between the Senate Democrats and House Republicans seemed to assure “regular order” in funding the government for the next year or so, that’s broken down. Obama is the reason.
Here’s a perceptive take from the Washington Post’s Paul Kane:
“At the center of the deadlock is the fight over coal and its place in the manufacturing economies of several battleground states, particularly Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is basing his reelection bid on protecting the coal industry from new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.” Kane doesn’t mention it, but West Virginia, another important coal state, almost certainly will see the Senate seat vacated by retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller go to Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
The coming Democratic blood bath in the Senate could have been avoided. The White House could have told the American people that it was up to Congress to come up with a plan for curbing greenhouse gases. If it didn’t, that represented the will of the people, as the U.S. Constitution prescribes.
But the White House believes that the president supremely represents the populace. That’s not confined to Obama. George W. Bush took the same position, as did Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Harry Truman, to name a few other presidents know to flex executive branch muscles (not even mentioning Teddy Roosevelt).
Sometimes it makes sense to defer to the legislature. Barack Obama would have been wise to step back on greenhouse gas regulations. He may have helped elect a Republican Senate. If so, he can kiss his greenhouse gas policy goodbye.