Thumbing his nose at partisan gridlock, President Barack Obama unveiled a climate-change plan late last month that attempts to use his executive powers to circumvent Congress, where action on climate change (or anything, for that matter) is slow if not completely stalled.
Highlights of the plan, which Obama detailed in a June 25 speech at Georgetown University, include:
• A major blow to carbon-spewing power plants, which account for more than one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions. "I'm directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants," Obama said. White House data shows Maine power plants and major industrial sites put out more than six million metric tons of carbon pollution (equivalent to the yearly output of more than 1.2 million cars) in 2011. Obama wants new standards in place by 2015.
• A directive to the Interior Department to permit renewable-energy projects on public lands (enough by 2020 to power more than six million of the country's 132 million homes).
• A new goal of installing 100 megawatts of renewable-energy capacity in federally assisted housing by 2020, as well as increasing renewable-energy sources at military facilities.
• Expansion of the President's Better Building Challenge, focused on helping commercial, industrial, and multi-family buildings cut waste and become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.
• New efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings, with the goal of reducing carbon pollution from those sources by at least three billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 — more than half of the annual carbon pollution from the US energy sector.
• A commitment to international leadership and cooperation around climate change issues.
Local environmentalists expressed cautious enthusiasm about Obama's proposals.
"Carbon pollution from power plants is a huge part of the global warming problem," said Emily Figdor of Environment Maine. "Today President Obama acknowledged this and mapped out a plan for cleaning up the pollution. We also know that this plan is just one important step in a multi-year effort, and that the proof of the plan's success will be in the pudding."
Unsurprisingly, Obama's plan drew criticism from the coal industry and Republicans, who said the policies would hurt the economy.
Anticipating such opposition, the president in his speech offered several examples of pro-environment policies that didn't cause the Chicken Little outcomes some predicted. "When we restricted cancer-causing chemicals in plastics and leaded fuel in our cars, it didn't end the plastics industry or the oil industry," he said. "American chemists came up with better substitutes. When we phased out CFCs — the gases that were depleting the ozone layer — it didn't kill off refrigerators or air-conditioners or deodorant. American workers and businesses figured out how to do it better without harming the environment as much."
(He also let loose this zinger, referring to those who dispute the very existence of climate change: "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.")
While aspects of the plan can move forward without Congressional approval, there are still several hurdles to clear, including potential legal challenges and the Congressional Review Act, a mid-1990s law that allows Congress to nullify federal agency regulations.
Obama also addressed the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would transport of tar-sands oil from Canada through the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest," he said. "And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." A decision on the pipeline is expected to come later this year or early next.