After formally committing the nation as a whole to a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 via the Copenhagen Accord, President Barack Obama announced Friday morning that the federal government itself would seek to cut its emissions even more — by 28 percent over that same time period.
The federal government’s agencies and departments, taken together, are the single largest energy user in the country. By pursuing the announced targets, which use 2008 emissions as a baseline year, it will lead the charge on the U.S.’s progress toward lowering the country’s emissions.
The White House expects these targets will eventually create jobs in the private sector by stimulating growth in the clean energy sector. The announcement builds on goals Obama laid out in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, a main focus of which was job creation.
The targets embody the increased role for the government in both promoting a shift to cleaner energy and creating jobs.
“As the largest energy consumer in the United States, we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” the president said in announcing the goals today.
It came in the face of criticism from some climate action advocates who had been critical of the president for categorizing "clean" coal, expanded nuclear and offshore drilling as “clean energy” solutions in his address to the nation earlier this week.
"A clean-energy economy does not include continued reliance on dirty coal and further risky drilling for oil in fragile offshore areas,” Center for Biological Diversity Executive Director Kierán Suckling noted. “The president failed tonight, as he has failed over the past 12 months, to use his bully pulpit to advocate a bright line goal for greenhouse gas reductions."
In addition, reports Friday have an administration official saying the president is planning on proposing a tripling of loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear reactors.
But in the emissions target announcement, Obama seemed to return to a focus on moving away from fossil fuels.
“Our goal is to lower costs, reduce pollution, and shift Federal energy expenses away from oil and towards local, clean energy,” the president said in a statement.
The announcement also follows on the president’s appearance Thursday in Florida, where he announced billions of dollars in funding for several high-speed rail projects that, like the federal government emissions reduction targets, his administration hopes will both promote a clean energy future and create jobs.
Friday, environmental groups also pointed out the potential cost-saving benefits of the government’s emissions cuts and saw it as the government taking a much-needed leadership role in moving the country along the path toward clean energy.
Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke called the reductions a "bold target and real leadership," saying they "will save taxpayers money and send a signal that the market for clean energy technology in the United States is growing rapidly.”
If the government "can achieve reductions on this scale, there’s no reason that the rest of the country cannot do the same," echoed the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope.
"It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that making investments in greater efficiency and reducing emissions will actually cut energy costs," he said, calling the announced actions a possible "model for businesses, as well as state and local governments."
The White House expects the emissions cuts to reduce emissions by the equivalent of 205 million barrels of oil, or taking 17 million cars off the road for a year, and to save $8 billion to $11 billion in energy costs through 2020.
The process toward setting the 28 percent number was set in motion in October when Obama signed Executive Order 13514. The order, among other environmental- and energy-related measures, mandated all federal agencies to submit an emissions reduction target by Jan. 4. Twenty-eight percent by 2020 was reached by aggregating the reports submitted by 35 agencies.
Department of Defense: A case in point
The federal government is estimated to own about 500,000 building and over 600,000 vehicles, according to White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley. The Department of Defense alone owns 300,000 building and 160,000 commercial vehicles. One quarter of DOD emissions come from these buildings and vehicles, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment Dorothy Robyn told reporters Friday.
Combat and operational activities will not be subject to the emissions targets, she said, but emissions from non-combat areas are expected to decrease 34 percent. The department’s energy bills for the past two years were $20 and $14 billion in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Robyn also noted that a move away from a reliance on fossil fuels would benefit the military since the transport of those fuels in combat zones can be treacherous.
The DOD is increasingly seeing reducing its fossil fuel reliance as a security imperative for cost and other reasons.
"The department has stepped up the long-term effort needed to reduce our high level of energy consumption, and this effort is driven first and foremost by mission considerations. The department’s own analysis confirms what outside experts have long warned: our military’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels creates significant risks and costs at a tactical as well as a strategic level," Robyn told a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a hearing on the October executive order Wednesday.
Fort Irwin, in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, has been ground zero for many of the department’s green initiatives. Most notably, it is expected to become energy independent by 2022, when the DOD’s largest solar installation is expected to be completed at the base. The $1.5 billion project was agreed to in October.
The Pentagon has been generally more cognizant of the need to face problems arising from climate change. The Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated review of national security strategy prepared every four years, is expected to present the effects of climate change — such as melting Arctic ice, refugees displaced by rising sea levels and water shortages — as needing to be taken into account in national security strategies. A leaked draft that began circulating Friday discusses climate-related issues extensively; the 2006 QDR did not.
These efforts at the DOD are indicative of broader efforts that are already being taken across the federal government and which might be expanded under the federal government’s new emissions targets.
At the hearing, the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program director, Richard Kidd, said federal agencies invested more than $1.7 billion dollars on energy efficiency projects last year — an increase of over 80 percent from the amount spent in 2008.