Skip to main content

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Has Some Excellent Advice for the President on Climate Change

May 13, 2013

Two months ago, President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a nine-page open letter to the President outlining six critical, common-sense pathways for the Administration to address global climate change during his second term. Released without much fanfare, the letter appears to have disappeared from public view, and review. Too bad, as we believe it contains some outstanding recommendations for this Administration,. Here’s our take on the Council’s letter:

While the Council calls for bold actions in six key areas, several of their imperatives stand out as most relevant to our work, particularly recommendation number two: “Continue efforts to decarbonize the economy, with an initial focus on the electricity sector.” This strategy is consistent with the Administration’s stated short-term goal of reducing economy-wide GHG emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 as well as the long-term goal of reducing GHG emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050, a goal called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the planet will have to face the worst consequences of global climate change. Towards this goal, the Council makes three essential recommendations:

  • “Continue implementation of Clean Air Act requirements on criteria pollutants (such as SO2 and NOx) and hazardous air pollutants (such as mercury) to include creating new performance standards for CO2 emissions from existing stationary sources.”  The Administration has made substantial progress in cleaning up conventional power plant emissions (through the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Finishing the job will require using section 111 of the Clean Air Act to set performance standards for new and existing fossil power plants.  CATF has produced a preliminary analysis that demonstrates that power sector CO2 emissions can be reduced by 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 at reasonable cost by simply redispatching the fleet to rely less heavily on inefficient coal units and more on efficient, but currently underutilized, natural gas combined cycle units.  Without such a rule, the US has no chance of meeting the 17 percent economy-wide goal. To achieve the 80 percent target by 2050, every fossil unit operating in that year will have to have full carbon capture and storage (CCS).
  • “Accelerate efforts to reduce the regulatory obstacles to deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and continue political support for the large CCS projects underway.”  Contrary to some reports, CCS technology is available, successful and scalable, with a number of projects around the world either operational, under construction or about to break ground. However, the Administration must act now to ensure that these and other projects move forward rapidly, in order to perfect the technology and to bring costs down so that it can be installed on all fossil units in the next few decades.  Fossil fuels aren’t going away any time soon, and CCS is the only pathway to allow their use without the enormous climate impacts of uncontrolled carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
  • “Support continuing expansion of shale-gas production, ensuring that environmental impacts of production and transport do not curtail the potential of this approach.”  The panel rightfully points out that methane leakage and groundwater contamination are among the environmental hazards that must be addressed by industry self-policing through rigid adherence to state-of-the-art operating standards   In our “open letter” to President Obama in January, CATF argued that controlling methane from both new and existing sources in the oil and gas industry presents an immediate—and cost-effective—opportunity to deliver swift climate benefits.  Doing so is also essential to ensuring the climate benefits of a policy that shifts more power generation to natural gas. In the decades after methane pollution enters the atmosphere, pound for pound, it 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 have near-term benefits—providing some significant temperature benefits over the coming decades. EPA must therefore 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) and oil production systems—all the way from the wellhead to the consumer’s gas meter.  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 the recipe for ozone smog, while other chemicals in natural gas are toxic). All of these pollutants would be cleaned up with measures to reduce venting and leaks of gas.
  • The domestic oil and gas industry is currently booming due to new technologies like hydraulic fracturing, giving developers access to previously unrecoverable gas and oil supplies and helping to fuel the economic recovery.  This increased production will be the source of increased methane emissions over the next few years unless steps are taken to eliminate leaks and venting. Regulations are also needed to minimize wasteful natural gas flaring, which would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon—a toxic component of particle pollution that also warms the climate, especially in the Arctic—and many other harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, toxic organic compounds, and other particle pollution.  While greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are about 40 percent of those from coal, ultimately we must have CCS on natural gas-fired power plants as well as coal plants.

Clearly fossil fuels will be part of the global energy mix, particularly in the developing world, for many decades to come.  So while the above strategies focus on dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fueled power plants, and shifting the fuel mix towards a lower-emissions natural gas, ultimately we will have to wean the planet off fossil fuels and bridge to zero-carbon alternatives.  Presciently, the Council echoes that necessity in recommendation number four: “Sustain research on next generation clean-energy technologies, and remove obstacles for their eventual deployment.”  This is particularly relevant to the transportation sector, where, for example, zero-carbon liquid biofuels for aircraft and electrification of the entire automotive fleet with highly advanced battery storage have yet to be invented.  Similarly, we must develop grid-scale storage of the intermittent power from renewables such as wind and solar. So the Council outlines two components to this recommendation, and they are vital to an overall climate change strategy:

  • “We recommend that you sustain, and if possible, augment the investment in research and development in energy innovation, focusing on the critical technologies that have the potential to dramatically lower our greenhouse gas emissions in the long run.” In these austere times, massive government investment on the scale of the Manhattan or Apollo projects is not feasible, but through better allocation of existing resources, reorienting the Department of Energy to focus on energy innovation, and harnessing the purchasing power of the Department of Defense, we can do a lot more with what we have.
  • “Nuclear power requires special attention, as the Federal Government’s role is different than for all other technologies.”  As a zero-carbon source of potentially a large proportion of the planet’s future energy needs, nuclear power requires special attention, most importantly to resolve key issues such waste disposal, terrorism threats, and plant safety.  With the current designs for advanced nuclear power plants and new concepts still only on the drawing board, their projected enormous, long-term costs present formidable barriers to market entry. So the Council calls for elimination of obstacles that would impede renewed commitments to nuclear power.  As CATF pointed out last year in a paper, streamlining the NRC’s regulatory approval process would be an important first step.

We also agree with the Council that climate change is not a national issue, it is a global challenge several orders of magnitude larger than any previously faced by mankind.  If we don’t engage with the developing world to jointly solve the problem, all the domestic steps outlined above won’t nearly begin to approach a global solution. So we wholeheartedly concur with recommendation number five: “Take additional steps to establish U.S. leadership on climate change internationally.”  This mandate is particularly relevant to working with China, now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, on joint solutions.  So we take very seriously the Council’s suggestion to:

  • “Continue work towards increased cooperation with China on the climate challenge.”  CATF has long been at the vanguard of brokering partnerships between US energy companies and Chinese energy entities for the development of clean energy technologies, particularly for CCS on coal-fired power plants both in the US and in China.  Now we’re working with them to develop their shale gas reserves in an environmentally responsible manner at the beginning of their shale boom, and we’re lending our expertise on the nuclear front as well.

The Council’s recommendations give the Administration a clear road map forward on climate change policy.  Now it’s time for the Administration to move ahead.

Related Posts

Stay in the know

Sign up today to receive the latest content, news, and developments from CATF experts.

"*" indicates required fields