On Friday, March 15, two rumors about Obama's plans on climate change were leaked to the press, and I imagine their timing was not a coincidence. First, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is considering delaying EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for new power plants. But, Bloomberg reports that the administration may seek an alternative route to address climate change - the National Environmental Policy Act.
In March 2012, the EPA issued a draft rule for new power plants, which would limit them from emitting no more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatthour. This would essentially make it impossible to build a new coal plant, as the average one emits about 1,768 pounds of CO2/MWh. Natural gas plants, on the other hand, emit an average of 800-850 pounds of CO2/MWh. This rule was the first-ever limit on GHG from power plants, a major step forward on climate action.
With the prospects of climate legislation slim, environmentalists have been pushing the administration to issue additional rules on existing power plants, forcing coal plants to either clean up or shut down. This is the major executive power that Obama has in his pocket, and many believe his statement in the State of the Union that "if Congress doesn't act, I will," was a veiled threat to issue such a rule.
Which is why last Friday's story that the administration was considering delaying finalizing the GHG rule for new power plants was a big setback. Ostensibly, according to Eilperin, the administration wants to rewrite the rule to shore up its legal holes so that it could survive legal challenges. While it is imperative that it does in fact survive the inevitable legal suits that will flow forth from a final rule, rewriting it now will significantly delay its implementation. And as Eilperin notes, "environmentalists are particularly worried about finishing the standards for new power plants because they are less controversial than imposing carbon limits on the existing plants..." In other words, if finalizing rules on new power plants is a huge challenge, additional limits for existing power plants may be further off than many imagined.
However, the other big piece of climate news from last Friday was that the administration is considering using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to address climate change. As I stated above, this was likely leaked on the same day as the story about delaying EPA rules in order to placate environmentalists and assure them that the administration is taking climate seriously.
NEPA was passed under President Nixon in 1970, and is one of the cornerstones of environmental regulation. NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of a proposed federal action before allowing it to move forward. This means that any proposed new road, pipeline, or power plant requires the consideration of its impact on the environment before permits can be issued. For significant projects, this requires an "Environmental Impact Statement," which must consider alternative scenarios, as well as compare the project to a "no action" scenario. In other words, NEPA, in theory, forces federal agencies to not only consider the economic benefits of a proposed project, but also the environment.
For a practical example, the State Department just released its EIS for the Keystone XL pipeline, in which it concluded the impact on the environment was not significant.
Should Obama decide to regulate carbon under NEPA, it would provide a broad new environmental tool. All new projects would have to account for their effects on climate before being approved (the State Dept. did not have to consider this for Keystone XL). And, if agencies ignore the climate effects when approving a project, environmental groups would have greater legal opportunities to halt dirty projects (they could sue the agency to halt the project).
On the one hand, it seems to me that it would do little for power plants. Since NEPA would apply to future projects, EPA's rule to limit GHG from new power plants (as discussed above) would already fulfill this mission. NEPA wouldn't seem to add much. However, for non-power plant projects, NEPA could have a significant impact. For example, forcing to account for the impacts on climate, it is conceivable that ports on the west coast could be blocked from exporting coal to China.
This would be a welcome development. Attacking greenhouse gases from multiple avenues is needed.
However, on balance, taking the two issues together - delaying EPA regulations, but broadening NEPA - I'm not sure is a net-positive. It's thus far hard to see how NEPA will actually be tweaked to address climate change, what criteria will be used, or how NEPA could reign in emissions from existing sources. Without Congress in gridlock, getting limits on existing plants, in my opinion, must be the top priority for the climate movement. Therefore, it seems that last week's announcements point to the fact that the administration still lacks the courage to make significant headway on this issue, despite strong words from the State of the Union.