The Obama administration is talking with two voices on the question of what to do about a class of highly potent greenhouse gases known as "super GHGs," with the State Department jockeying with anonymous White House sources for control of the spin.
On one side of the issue is the State Department, whose e-mail to media is headlined: "United States Signals Interest in Potential Ways to Address Hydrofluorocarbons." Its first line:
On May 4, 2009, the State Department wrote to the Secretariat of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, expressing interest in a proposal that calls for amending the Montreal Protocol to phase down consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
On the other side is an unnamed source at the White House, who spoke today to The New York Times, which ran a story by John Broder headlined Obama Not Seeking Quick Climate Action Under Ozone Treaty. Sounds like a done deal.
Not so fast. Compare the emphasis in the two communications and the real story becomes the debate within the administration of what to do with a leadership opportunity for rapid climate action. It would allow the U.S. to make a big impression on the international stage and make significant progress on protecting the planet.
Far from being over, the drama is just beginning to unfold.
For months now, the State Department has been leading an effort to propose an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would allow the highly-effective, 20-year-old treaty to regulate the super GHGs. State had the support of EPA, the Pentagon, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as well as Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey and Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer.
Last week, however, the momentum stalled as the effort ran into unexpected opposition from an economist at the White House, as SolveClimate reported:
The economist argued that HFCs were needed within a CO2 cap-and-trade system and should not be shifted to the Montreal Protocol.
Maintaining their inclusion within the Kyoto basket of gases would help keep the price of carbon credits down, the economist argued, and would allow for greater economic efficiency by permitting the trading of one gas against another.
In other words, a utility company or cement manufacturer on the hook to reduce CO2 emissions under a federal climate law could opt to find sources of HFCs and have them destroyed instead. Since HFCs are as much as 11,990 times more potent than CO2, small amounts could substitute for large amounts of CO2 emissions and offer a cheaper alternative to emissions reductions, lubricating the economy to a more gradual embrace of a price on carbon. It also means CO2 emissions would ratchet down more slowly.
The roadblock forced the State Department to miss today's deadline for filing the amendment. Daniel Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department who has been leading the charge on the HFC issue, today sent a letter to the UN Environment Programme, explaining the delay in U.S. action for two reasons.
First, the new administration is barely 100 days old:
"In the brief time available to us, however, we have not been able to complete the analysis needed," he wrote.
At the same time, he acknowledged in diplomatic code the White House opposition that wants to keep HFCs under the Kyoto climate treaty. He said the U.S. must
"consider how amending the Montreal Protocol to address HFCs would affect negotiations now taking place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with respect to the post-2012 period.
"For these reasons, we are not able at this time to submit a specific amendment proposal."
That left the door open for the unnamed White House source to spin its story to The New York Times, whose headline reported that Obama himself has apparently made a firm decision. Soon after, the State Department sent out its more positive version of events to media, while behind the scenes reassuring a broad coalition of industry and NGOs seeking rapid control of HFCs not to be discouraged by the temporary slow-down.
"The Times headline was far too absolute," said Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international NGO that is heavily involved in the HFC issue. "The State Department letter demonstrates that the U.S. sees the wisdom in amending the Montreal Protocol, and that it would be an enormous opportunity to miss using it for rapid climate protection."
Left unchecked, HFCs would add up to 25 times the current total U.S. emissions to the global burden by 2040, largely because of their use in ever greater numbers for air-conditioning and refrigeration in the developing world. They could effectively negate all reductions in CO2 currently being contemplated.
In the absence of U.S. action today, two of the tiniest island nations on the planet – the Federated States of Micronesia and Mauritius – have filed for an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, leaving the door open for decisive U.S. support.
"We understand that their action, prior to the May 4th deadline for the submission of amendments, will put this issue on the agenda," Reifsnyder wrote.
Next stop is Geneva in July, where a Montreal Protocol workshop to hash out details and next steps is already on the State Department radar.
"The State Department acknowledged every important fact about the issue in the letter," said Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, "so in that regard, let's say it was a positive half-step forward."
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza