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Obama’s Path to Progress: Reducing Climate Disrupting Emissions from Power Plants

Responsive Government

Last week brought a string of bad news as far as global climate disruption goes.  The bummer parade began Sunday with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Synthesis report, which painted the direst picture yet of the looming global climate disruption threat, finding that “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”  Before it was possible for anyone to catch their breath, the mid-term election results delivered another punch to the environmental gut, as a wave of anti-environmental candidates emerged victorious, securing Republican control of the U.S. Senate and expanding their control of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The cherry on top came when Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a politician best known for writing an entire book in which he dismissed climate disruption as the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—confirmed that he would chair the Senate Committee that will conduct oversight on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Things look grim, but not all hope is lost for making meaningful progress on the issue of climate disruption.  While a comprehensive bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to emerge from Congress anytime soon, President Obama already has ample authority to tackle the largest emitters using the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed.  Fortunately, Obama is already putting that authority to good use with a pair of pending rules that would establish national performance standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from future and existing fossil-fueled power plants.  These rules make up one of the 13 essential regulatory actions highlighted in CPR’s recent Issue Alert on safeguards that the Obama Administration can and should implement before its term in office expires.  By finalizing these regulatory actions, Obama can not only deliver significant benefits to the American public; he can also help secure his legacy on important public health, safety, and environmental issues.

The pending greenhouse gas rules for power plants provide a clear illustration of why it’s important for the Obama Administration to make aggressive use of its existing legal authority during its remaining time in office.  As currently proposed, the rules would deliver significant public health and environmental benefits once fully implemented. The rules would reduce power plant emissions of carbon dioxide by about 730 million metric tonnes each year, which is roughly equivalent to the emissions produced by two-thirds of the country’s automobiles. As an important bonus, the agency also estimates that the rules would annually prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths, 3,300 non-fatal heart attacks, 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and 490,000 missed school and work days.

Given what’s at stake, there’s simply no time for delay.  Scientists estimate that we’ve already locked in a 1.4-degree-Fahrenheit increase in average global temperatures since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which is more than enough to create long-lasting, if not irreparable damage to the planet.  As the recent IPCC synthesis report makes clear, the world is already suffering the early consequences of global climate disruption, including increased wildfires, exacerbated droughts, rising sea levels, the spread of invasive species, and the expansion of infectious diseases.  In short, global climate disruption is not some distant threat; rather it is here and now.

Because fossil-fueled power plants are the largest single U.S. source of greenhouse emissions—accounting for nearly a third of all such emissions—these rules are critical if we are to have any hope of averting the most catastrophic effects of global climate disruption.  Without such steps, the world will remain on target for “very dangerous” global climate disruption.  Indeed, the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers recently reported that the world is instead on course to see average global temperatures rise by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.  The report also projects that at this rate the world will have exhausted its “carbon budget”—that is, the maximum amount of carbon dioxide emissions it can release before the end of the century—by the year 2034.

Whatever the eventual path is for preventing the worst impacts of global climate disruption, it will necessarily have to include significant reductions of greenhouse gas emission from U.S. power plants.

To no one’s surprise, the newly empowered congressional Republicans have already put a target on these crucial rulemakings.  The presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has even said that blocking these rules is a top priority.

Congressional Republicans can complain all the want about the rules.  They can hold dozens of hearings to attack them. They can issue reams of press releases and reports that repeat their same tired arguments against the rules.  No doubt they’ll develop legislation aimed at blocking the rules or at stripping EPA of authority to promulgate them.

But even if Republicans are able to secure enough votes to the 60-vote mark in the Senate that they successfully made the new normal, the legislation could not take effect without the President’s signature or a veto override that would demand a super-majority the Republicans don’t have.  President Obama can and should veto any and all legislation that would have the effect of blocking these critical rulemakings—even if the operative provisions come through riders to appropriations bills or other “must pass” legislation.

In short, the President has the authority he needs to adopt these important regulations, and the Congress will be hard-pressed to block them.  If the President wants to get this done, all he needs is to demonstrate the will.

This is a fight that the President should gladly take on.  Action to address global climate disruption enjoys widespread public support.  By attacking these regulations so aggressively, Republicans risk presenting themselves as anti-environmental extremists just when they are trying to build credibility with mainstream voters in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

Obama’s EPA has already made substantial progress on the two greenhouse rules with the agency projecting that it will complete the rule for future power plants this coming January with the rule for existing power plants to follow next June.  The Administration should strictly adhere to this timeline, since any unnecessary delays could jeopardize the effective implementation of these rules.  In particular, the state implementation plans are vital to the successful implementation of the national performance standards for existing power plants.  The EPA should complete this rule on schedule to ensure adequate time for states to submit their implementation plans before the close of the Obama Administration.

Responsive Government

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