With President Obama’s re-election, environmentalists were re-energized. In his first term, the president disappointed just about everyone in the movement with (among other things) his lackluster support for the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009. Senate Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority at the time, so only a few senators from the party’s conservative Blue Dog caucus or those representing fossil fuel-rich states would have needed some LBJ-style arm-twisting (or Clinton-style quid-pro-quos) to get the bill through. The Senate version of the bill never even came up for a vote, and the Democrats have since lost their numerical advantage. Legislative action on reducing carbon emissions, therefore, is widely viewed as having a polar bear’s chance in Phoenix.
Nonetheless, policy analysts say, there’s much a president can do on his or her own to bring down the U.S. contribution to greenhouse gases. The executive branch is, of course, tasked with enforcing laws and regulations already on the books, creating new regulations, and updating old ones. It has the power, technically, to exercise authority over every major source of greenhouse gases, from power plants (34 percent of U.S. emissions) to adipic-acid manufacturing (less than half a percent). Here’s a rundown.
Producing electricity is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As natural gas’s cost has fallen due to the fracking boom, it has replaced coal at many power plants. But coal is still the source of one-third of our electricity, and it contributes the majority of emissions from power plants.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate CO2 emissions, making the agency the lever by which the second Obama administration can force the greatest reduction in greenhouse gases. The traditional approach would be to require individual power plants to limit CO2 emissions—much as the agency has done to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, that come from burning coal. Carbon “scrubbers,” though, are expensive, and requiring them would likely face legal challenges.
“The opportunity to get much bigger reductions in a cost-effective way,” says Dan Lashof, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is to take a system-wide approach.” That would involve designing standards that push energy efficiency on users. Consumers using less electricity could reduce the number of kilowatt-hours produced by coal plants by more than the 5 percent or so that Lashof estimates would be feasible from scrubbers and the like.
Obama’s Department of Energy could also bring down emissions from power plants; it has the job of setting efficiency requirements on appliances and equipment. And EPA could squeeze coal plants further by forcing reductions of mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions, since those chemicals are closely correlated with CO2 emissions. Additionally, new regulations on coal ash disposal would make producing the stuff more costly for utilities, and thereby encourage alternate fuels.
Electricity from burning natural gas accounts for at least 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent (though relatively short-lived) greenhouse gas, and when it’s burned it produces CO2 (though in about half the concentration as coal). The efficiency standards Lashof recommends would also apply in the case of natural gas plants. These plants are becoming more popular not only thanks to the fuel’s falling cost, but because increases in electricity generation from wind and solar power encourage construction of natural gas-fired plants: Unlike coal plants, they can be quickly powered up and down when the wind dies down or the sky clouds over.
Much of the natural gas industry’s emissions occur before the gas is even burned in power plants, and there lies another opportunity for Obama to reduce greenhouse gases. Fracking operations (for oil as well as gas) routinely burn off methane at the source, so penalizing that practice would reduce CO2. And natural gas routinely leaks from pipelines and other distribution systems. The World Resource Institute’s 2010 inventory of U.S. greenhouse gases estimated that such leakage accounts for about 2 percent of emissions; however (as I’ve written elsewhere), researchers have more recently reported that it could be much higher than that. In April, EPA cracked down on frackers’ releases of volatile organic chemicals with a new regulation that should at the same time bring down methane emissions at wellheads by as much as 25 percent, signaling the administration’s willingness to go down that road.