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Obama’s Second Term Climate Priorities

January 10, 2013

In recent statements, President Obama has ranked addressing climate change one of his top three priorities for his second term. Win, place or show, the President has already offered up a two-track course forward: first, take immediate action on near-term greenhouse gas emission reductions; and, second, simultaneously launch a conversation on how to put the U.S. on a longer term path to both avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and promote economic growth and job creation.

We have already made progress on the first track. In 2009, the President committed the United States to a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. The U.S. currently is within striking distance of the 2020 goal for carbon dioxide, partly due to the Obama Administration’s leadership in setting fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. But much of the forecasted carbon dioxide reduction is due to the economic slowdown and to the historically low price of natural gas. But we can’t rely on natural gas prices remaining low forever and we want economic growth. We must work to meet U.S. climate goals based on smart choices, not chance.

The President should take two clear, and immediate steps – neither requiring Congressional action: First, EPA can finalize the Clean Air Act performance standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new fossil power plants, followed immediately by a regulatory program to control carbon pollution from existing power plants. Second, EPA can regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry — a strategy that will yield almost immediate climate benefits.

Power Plants: Electricity production is the largest industrial contributor to domestic carbon dioxide emissions – and EPA’s power plant carbon dioxide emissions standards must be finalized at the emissions rate typical for a new natural gas power plant. Most domestic carbon dioxide emissions come from existing power plants, of course, so setting aggressive yet attainable performance standards will rebalance the generation mix by curtailing the operation of older, inefficient coal plants, in favor of cleaner plants, like underutilized existing natural gas plants.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions will also unlock billions of dollars in capital investment to improve overall system efficiency and to install pollution controls. These improvements, in turn, will create thousands of jobs. Moreover, sending this economic signal now, while companies and states are still making decisions regarding how to comply with the soot, smog, and toxics rules, could avoid billions of dollars of stranded investment in emission controls on outdated coal plants.

Methane Regulation: EPA should set comprehensive methane emissions standards to minimize the largest source of methane pollution in the US – the venting and leaking of natural gas (which is mostly methane) from natural gas production and transmission systems. Controlling methane emissions presents an immediate – and cost-effective — opportunity to deliver swift climate benefits. Pound for pound, methane pollution warms the climate over 70 times more than carbon dioxide. However, unlike carbon dioxide, methane degrades in the atmosphere in a few decades. As a result, reducing methane emissions quickly can provide some significant temperature benefits. These standards would save precious fuel, money (many recommended measures pay for themselves quickly, since they conserve gas which can then be sold), and lives (methane and other pollutants in natural gas are ingredients in ozone smog, while other chemicals in natural gas are toxic). Doing so is also essential to ensuring the climate benefits of a policy that shifts more power generation to natural gas.

Creating these standards will also create jobs for everything from designing even better new control techniques and new tanks, to detecting and repairing leaks in the system, and to building pipelines to avoid wasteful flaring of gas at oil wells.

Taking the Longer View:

But clearly we need more than these technologies to tackle the enormous climate challenge ahead. Abundant natural gas, while less carbon-intensive than coal, is not a long-run climate solution, as the National Petroleum Council noted in its 2011 report “Prudent Development.” To ensure adequate long-term progress, the Obama administration must revamp energy technology innovation initiatives to ensure the U.S. can deploy sufficient low/zero carbon electricity and transportation technology to meet the 80 percent carbon dioxide emissions reduction target by 2050.

To reach that goal in just 37 years, we must drive the development of a broad portfolio of low-cost, zero-carbon technology options. The U.S. does not need to pick “winners” among new technologies and firms, but rather, it must cultivate and support promising technologies at their early stages so they can seriously enter the race. And to move advanced technologies forward will require much more effective innovation policies than are in place today. Some examples might include:

  • Competitively bid production tax credits for the use of captured power plant carbon dioxide in enhanced oil recovery;
  • Targeting federal clean energy procurement to truly innovative technologies rather than today’s technologies;
  • Reorganizing the Department of Energy’s innovation work around the strategic grand challenges of zero carbon energy rather than technology-specific silos; and
  • Support for Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing procedures designed to enable successful commercialization of promising advanced nuclear technologies.

So with these and other enabling policy actions, in the power sector, for example, we can and must develop and commercialize:

Carbon capture and storage for all coal and gas power plants ;

Advanced nuclear energy technologies;

Grid-scale energy storage to support optimal deployment of intermittent renewable resources and to complement base-load nuclear power systems; and

Advanced, more economically competitive renewable, energy technologies.

In the transportation sector this strategy would include developing and commercializing:

  • Electric technology systems for all light vehicles and freight rail transportation;
  • True zero-carbon liquid fuels that – unlike biofuels – do not emit carbon throughout their lifespan; and
  • Synthetic hydrocarbon fuels based on recycled carbon dioxide captured at power plants.

Some of these improved innovation policies may not require substantial new financial resources. But let’s face facts: putting the United States back into global technology leadership in energy will not be free. The United States leads the world in military technology due partly to a military R&D budget of $60 Billion annually. A considerably smaller energy innovation budget could ensure America’s position as the world’s clean energy technology leader.

Climate change has been rightly called a “wicked problem,” involving enormous uncertainties and unknowable risks, multiple and sometimes competing pathways forward, and disagreement about what “success” would be. Still, we know the direction we need to head: towards a society and economy with lower emissions of greenhouse gases. The short-term policies described above constitute a serious start, and set the stage for long-term progress through a new and focused energy innovation initiative.

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