‘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.

The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant near Macon, Ga., is the nation's largest singl
The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant near Macon, Ga., is the nation's largest single point source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA data. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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.”

Third Way takes credit for naming the “all of the above” energy strategy that Obama has touted since unveiling it during his 2011 State of the Union address.

Keystone XL opponents are wrong to call the president pro-oil when his administration has championed a gamut of transportation fuels, including biofuels, electricity and natural gas, Walther said. Obama also spearheaded an initiative to slash reliance on petroleum by endorsing standards that require new cars and light trucks to average nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. That provision is expected to halve carbon emissions from vehicles.

Walther also lauded Obama for forging ahead with restrictions on coal instead of expecting Congress to do so.

“Did we really think after cap and trade died that we could have this type of success?” he asked. “This sows the seeds for new regulations.”

Existing Coal Plants Next?

Environmental groups were quick to lavish praise on Obama for EPA’s new rule that the Sierra Club described as “an important, historic step away from dirty energy.” The Natural Resources Defense Council, which joined the Sierra Club in staunch opposition to the Keystone XL, was equally complimentary.

“We watch most closely what the administration does, more so than what is says,” David Doniger, policy director for NRDC’s climate program, wrote in an e-mail. “The standard for new power plants is a big step toward protecting our health and well-being from the carbon pollution that is driving dangerous climate change.”

NRDC is one of the organizations that forced EPA to act on emissions from new and existing power plants by filing a lawsuit that led to a December 2010 settlement. In 2009, the agency determined that carbon pollution threatens Americans’ health and the environment by leading to long-lasting changes in the climate. That finding followed a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2007 that authorized EPA to rein in planet-warming gases.

All along, environmentalists have been prodding EPA to issue a more aggressive rule aimed at existing power plants. However, they understand why today’s anti-regulatory fervor means that regulation will be a post-November exercise—if Obama earns a second term.

“We are simply not prepared to make a statement on existing facilities at this time,” Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air and radiation, said in a teleconference call Tuesday. “We can discuss the existing standards when there have been decisions made and it’s more appropriate.”

The draft regulation targeting future power plants comes on the heels of final standards EPA issued last year geared at slicing mercury, soot and smog pollution from old coal-fired plants.  

This newest rule, issued under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Performance Standards, limits carbon emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Coal-fired plants now average about 1,800 pounds, while natural gas facilities are significantly lower at between 800 and 850 pounds.

Currently, about 600 coal plants provide nearly 40 percent of the nation’s power, compared to the 27 percent from natural gas-powered generators.

“We also recognize that coal continues to have a place,” McCarthy said. “It’s the largest source of electricity generation in the United States. We want to make sure it uses modern advanced technology.”

To meet the standard, new coal plants would have to invest in expensive and advanced technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration. However, the rule does not apply to the dozen or so facilities that already have permits and will be breaking ground within the next year. Very few, if any, coal-fired plants are planned beyond then.

EPA’s draft rule will be open to a 60-day public comment period as soon as it’s published in the Federal Register. That’s likely to happen within the next couple of months, McCarthy said.

New Plants: Beyond Natural Gas

Climate specialists at the World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank, pointed out that a quarter of the nation’s fossil fuel-based generation capacity is at least 40 years old and thus nearing retirement.

“Any plants built today would likely be standing in 2050 and beyond,” said Kevin Kennedy, the institute’s U.S. climate director. That makes “strong rules for new plants an important part of the picture.”

His colleague Nicholas Bianco, a senior associate at the think tank, emphasized that today’s projections on fuel availability and price don’t always hold true for tomorrow. Even if the nation’s current natural gas glut doesn’t last, he said, EPA’s newest rule provides certainty for the business sector by clamping down on dirty coal.

Coal-fired plants emit about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas-powered ones.

In his commentary last week, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the EPA’s newest carbon pollution protections won’t amount to much on the overall climate front if the nation merely switches fossil fuels by trading coal for abundant and cheap natural gas.

“Ultimately, the only way to stop hurting ourselves will be to do everything we can, everywhere we can, to accelerate the development of clean, renewable energy like solar and wind,” he said. “Call it a best of the above strategy, if you will.”