Obama: Climate Strategy to Be Driven by Natural Gas, Renewables

President Barack Obama’s landmark speech on Tuesday outlining executive actions to combat and prepare for climate change backed the growth of natural gas and renewable power in lieu of carbon-heavy coal power, but he mentioned nuclear power only once—and only in the context of energy security.

The president’s speech closely mirrored the White House’s June 25 release of a 21-page blueprint, a document the president called a Climate Action Plan (CAP), which charts the executive branch’s effort’s to achieve its 2009 pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.

Curbing Carbon Through GHG Rules for Power Plants

The plan “begins” with slashing carbon pollution by “changing the way we use energy,” Obama said. That would require “using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy.” But this does not mean “we’re going to suddenly stop producing fossil fuels,” he said. “Our economy wouldn’t run very well if it did. And transitioning to a clean energy economy takes time.”

However, 40% of U.S. carbon pollution is emitted by power plants, and no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution exist, the president noted. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

As a first measure to combat climate change, the president therefore directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete issuance of its final New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for greenhouse gas emissions, which it has postponed, missing its April 13 deadline because it was reportedly still reviewing more than 2 million comments on its proposal. That rule establishes carbon dioxide standards for certain new and reconstructed coal and gas generators, limiting emissions to 1,000 pounds/MWh. President Obama called on the EPA, however, to develop standards for that rule affecting new power plants—and another for existing power plants—“in an open and transparent way, to provide flexibility to different states with different needs, and build on the leadership that many states, and cities, and companies have already shown.”

It was also imperative that the Senate confirm the nomination of Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator, Obama said. “She’s been held up for months, forced to jump through hoops no Cabinet nominee should ever have to—not because she lacks qualifications, but because there are too many in the Republican Party right now who think that the [EPA] has no business protecting our environment from carbon pollution.”

The Supreme Court has ruled GHGs are pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, and the EPA had in 2009 determined GHGs are a threat to public health and welfare and therefore subject to regulation, the president noted. Meanwhile, a “dozen states” have already implemented their own market-based programs to reduce carbon pollution, 25 have set energy efficiency targets, and 35 have set renewable energy targets. “It’s just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said.

Heavy on Natural Gas and Renewables

Though the president mentioned his much-reiterated “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, he prominently lauded increased U.S. production of what he called “cleaner-burning” natural gas. “We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions,” he said. Natural gas is creating jobs, lowering heat and power bills, and “it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.”

Obama also called for doubling current levels of renewables by 2020. Notably, he called on the federal government to source 20% of its power from renewables by 2020 and urged the Interior Department to approve over the next seven years an additional 10 GW (beyond the 10 GW already permitted) of private renewable energy capacity on public lands. He also called on the Department of Defense to install 3 GW of renewable power on its bases.

A Nuclear-Shy Plan

In the president’s speech, as in the White House’s CAP blueprint, mention of nuclear power’s future role as a clean energy source to combat climate change was largely absent.

Industry experts had expected the White House’s climate change strategy to be founded on recommendations by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released this March . The council called for continued efforts to “decarbonize the economy,” with an emphasis on the power sector, and removal of regulatory obstacles (such as lower financing costs) to “level the playing field” for renewables, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and energy-efficiency technologies. PCAST had specifically lauded nuclear’s role in efforts to curb climate change, saying: “Achieving low-carbon goals without a substantial contribution from nuclear power is possible, but extremely difficult.”

In his speech on Tuesday, the president noted that nuclear was a pinnacle of U.S. strategy for a secure energy future—and that the country’s first new nuclear plants had broken ground this year for the first time in three decades. But while future efforts to curb climate change would require the use of “more clean energy,” he set the focus on doubling wind and solar energy from current levels by 2020.

Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of industry lobby group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) told POWERnews on Tuesday that the administration was well aware that the nation could not reach its energy and climate goals without nuclear power. “President Obama recognized this during the presidential campaign when he said, ‘It is unlikely we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.’ Likewise, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz supports the expansion of nuclear energy to meet national energy and environmental imperatives,” he said. “We look forward to working with the administration to help achieve these extremely important goals.”

International Efforts

Notable global measures called for by the president in his Tuesday speech included an outright termination of U.S. public financing for new foreign coal plants without carbon capture.

The pledge could bar the U.S.-backed Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank from financing a number of major fossil fuel power plants. According to environmental group Pacific Environment, the Ex-Im Bank has supported a number of massive projects, including financing for the 4-GW Sasan coal project in India and the 4.8-GW Kusile coal project in South Africa. The lender’s financing for fossil fuel projects (including oil-field exploration, pipelines, refineries, and gas power plants) reached $9.6 billion in the 2012 fiscal year.

Obama said he would direct his administration to launch negotiations toward global free trade in environmental goods and services, including clean energy technology, to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development. “They don’t have to repeat all the same mistakes that we made.”

Another significant action pledged by the president was to “redouble … efforts” to engage international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete actions. “What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious—because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement—because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible—because different nations have different needs,” he said.

A Reason to Act

As he had in his February 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to come up with a bipartisan, “market-based” solution to climate change. “But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now,” he said.

The president briefly summarized the history of climate change science. He pointed out that scientists have known since the 1800s that GHGs like CO2 trap heat and “that burning fossil fuels release those gases into the air.” But he noted that only in the 1950s did concerns emerge (from the National Weather Service) that rising GHG levels might disrupt the “fragile balance.” That science “accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind,” he said.

No single weather event could be caused solely by climate change, the president claimed, but there is consensus that the world is warmer than it used to be, and “all weather events are affected by a warming planet.” It is fact that the 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the past 15 years, and that last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record—faster than most models had predicted it would. It is also fact that sea level in New York Harbor is a foot higher than a century ago, he said. “That didn’t cause Hurricane Sandy, but it certainly contributed to the destruction that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and underwater.”

Climate change could have a measurable economic impact, he suggested: “Farmers see crops wilted one year, washed away the next; and the higher food prices get passed on to you, the American consumer. … Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief.”

The question is not “whether we need to act,” the president said, pointing to an “overwhelming judgment of science—of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements,” it is “whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late.

Sources: POWERnews, The White House

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

NOTE: This story was originally published on June 26

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