Swallowed up by the Edward Snowden story, a landmark Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, immigration reform and even the start of the George Zimmerman trial, President Barack Obama’s long-awaited plan to combat climate change failed to capture America’s hearts and minds last week.
Sure, the plan drew some acclaim from environmentalists, a wave of criticism from fossil fuel interests and a sharp rebuke from congressional Republicans, and even some coal-state Democrats, that Obama was continuing his “war on coal.” But the responses were little more than press release bluster and widely expected.
It’s an easy argument that Obama’s climate change speech at Georgetown University last week landed with such a dull thud due to the hectic and beguiling news cycle and the public’s limited appetite for major policy speeches, as many pundits have argued.
But the relative lack of attention the plan has garnered probably has more to do with a lack of details, deadlines that are years away and the fact that some of the president’s proposal retread familiar ground. How many more times, for example, can the American public listen to Obama’s frequent calls for an end to fossil-fuel tax breaks, which he included in the climate change speech, and expect to keep paying attention?
Even the most notable element of Obama’s plan, calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to finalize greenhouse gas emission standards on new and existing power plants, was expected by pretty much everyone, is still years from taking root, and faces likely court challenges when the rules are out, potentially just before Obama’s second term is over.
The plan calls on EPA to release a new proposal for GHG standards on new power plants by September 20, and to prepare a separate proposal for existing power plants by June 2014 and finalize it by June 2015.
Even the most surprising element of the speech, Obama’s claim that the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline would be built “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” is pretty insignificant. A State Department analysis released in March stated that construction and operation of the pipeline would have “no significant impacts to most resources” along the proposed route, assuming that owner TransCanada accepts mitigation measures, a rather sharp point of contention with pipeline opponents.
The plan calls for domestic carbon pollution cuts, a US-led international effort to combat climate change, strict limits on government financing of overseas coal plants, and new goals for renewable-energy production on federal lands, but, again, few specifics.
And the plan makes only vague references to plans for fossil fuels, such as promoting fuel-switching from coal to gas for electricity generation, promoting clean-coal technologies and encouraging the use of heavy duty natural-gas vehicles.
“Going forward, we will promote fuel-switching from coal to gas for electricity production and encourage the development of a global market for gas,” reads the 21-page White House report on Obama’s plan, which like much of the proposal includes no additional information on how or when this may happen.
Still, the plan have been the best one the White House could have put out due to a gridlocked Congress, according to Jason Bordoff, who previously advised Obama and the National Security Council on energy and climate-change issues.
“Their tools are limited … Within the realm of what the administration had available to work with, I think they’re using every authority they can, trying to do it in a smart, flexible, cost-effective way, and saying, ‘Look, this is where we can make progress, so let’s start the plan today,’ ” said Bordoff, now the director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It will not be sufficient to solve the global climate-change problem over the very long term, but it’s a really important step to move us closer to where we need to be.”