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'Yes' to Tar Sands, 'No' to Coal: Obama Confounds Climate Community

With one eye on the polls and the other on energy goals, Obama appears conflicted and confounded by greenhouse gas emissions.

Apr 2, 2012
The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant near Macon, Ga., is the nation's largest singl

WASHINGTON—Those expecting a consistent climate change message from the White House are having trouble squaring two recent energy initiatives.

President Obama avoided any climate-related language when he stood in Cushing, Okla. on March 22 to encourage construction of the southern leg of the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil pipeline. Then, just five days later—when Obama was attending a nuclear security summit in South Korea—the Environmental Protection Agency modestly rolled out its first-ever carbon pollution standard for future power plants.

How, puzzled critics asked, could the Obama administration endorse a tar sands pipeline project that's been labeled the "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet" while simultaneously laying the groundwork for kicking coal to the curb as an electricity generator?

The short answer is that he has one eye on the polls and the other on his long-term energy goals.

Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Clean Air Watch, told InsideClimate News that the two announcements raise this fundamental question: "Is the Obama administration more focused on the electoral map rather than where the carbon comes from as its guiding principle when it comes to putting caps on carbon dioxide?"

Obama is well aware that presidents can do virtually nothing about gas prices in the near term, O'Donnell said. But touting Keystone XL as relief for an oil bottleneck in the Midwest was a symbolic move to show Obama is not anti-pipeline when the public is grousing about pain at the pump.

And while the rule to curb carbon pollution from future power plants is a significant environmental victory, O'Donnell said, it won't have an impact until existing plants are retired and replaced with cleaner fuels. No new coal-fired power plants are in the hopper, he added, so the rule is merely reinforcing a trend set by natural market forces and low natural gas prices.

Even though action on Keystone XL and new power plants might seem inconsistent, "it's not a question of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing," O'Donnell said about Obama's energy game plan. "Anyone from either party is going to make running for reelection the No. 1 priority. That’s just the way it is."

Keystone Emissions Negating New Rule?

Opponents of Keystone XL are quick to point out that any gains made by the EPA's newest rule could be negated if the entire 1,702-mile pipeline is constructed between Alberta, Canada and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

On Tuesday, when the EPA unveiled the draft version of its standard directed at upcoming electricity generators, it didn't include calculations on how many tons of heat-trapping gas emissions the new rule would prevent.

But Obama supporters stung by his decision to travel to the oil hub of Cushing point out that EPA arithmetic from several years ago predicted that annual carbon dioxide emissions for extracting and refining 900,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude for the Keystone XL would be 27 million metric tons greater than emissions from conventional crude. That's roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from seven coal-fired power plants, according to agency figures. Since then, TransCanada, the company that would build and operate Keystone XL, has reduced the pipeline's proposed daily flow to 830,000 barrels.

Never mind, critics say, that those emissions numbers would likely grow as more tar sands pipelines become part of the North American landscape. Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. said last week that it would invest $4 billion to expand two pipeline systems that would dramatically increase the flow of oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast—the Flanagan South Pipeline from Flanagan, Ill. to Cushing, Okla. and the Seaway Pipeline from Cushing to Houston.

Robert Walther, a senior energy adviser with the centrist think tank Third Way, said those fixated on potential carbon emissions from Keystone XL aren’t being realistic. Weaning the country of fossil fuels with a cold turkey approach isn’t pragmatic, he added.

"When you talk about the environmental concerns of Keystone XL, it's nothing compared to [EPA's announcement] and what this president has done," Walther said. "You can't just cap everything or the public won’t come along with you. Energy solutions need a balanced approach."

Power plants are this country's largest source of carbon pollution, accounting for one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions. Close to 1,500 power plants release about 2.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.

That emissions figure would grow by around 25 percent if coal alone were used to satisfy the country's appetite for electricity through 2035, Walther said. Instead, new emissions will be dramatically reduced as EPA's newest rule prompts utilities to meet that need with natural gas, renewables and possibly nuclear.

"With this rule the EPA has essentially said that no matter what happens with natural gas prices, you will not see more coal plants come on line," Walther said. "Coal was already falling away as an option. It can't compete in the marketplace."

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