How Can Obama Tackle Climate Change in His Second Term?

In his second inaugural address on Monday, President Obama made it clear that the threat of climate change is real and vowed to take action during his final four years in office.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

The president’s statements are not as controversial as they would have been four years ago. From droughts and extreme weather to health problems such as asthma, climate change is already affecting everyday Americans and the nation’s economy, according to a draft report recently released by a number of federal agencies under the Global Change Research Program. The report will take public comment before a final draft is issued, but the scientists and government advisers who put it together are confirming what many Americans already suspect:

Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between.

Sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to avoid the worst symptoms of climate change, such as coastal flooding, extreme weather, drought and wildfires, according to the report. If global emissions continue to increase, average temperatures in the United States could rise by 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

So what can Obama do? During his first term, the initial push for a national cap on carbon emissions failed when Congress rejected cap-and-trade legislation. To avoid another showdown with lawmakers, the president and his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are expected to rely on administrative measures and regulation to encourage big polluters to embrace new technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Under Obama, the EPA has already taken some steps toward regulating greenhouse gas pollution. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, and in 2009, the EPA officially acknowledged that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the health and welfare of Americans and can be regulated.

The EPA has since put several proposals on the table. Now, environmentalists want to the agency to seal the deal.

“Thankfully, we have the clean energy solutions at our fingertips to tackle [climate change], but we need our elected officials to do more to put these solutions to work,” said Nathan Willcox, global warming program director with Environment America, in a recent statement.

Curbing Power Plant Pollution

Power plants are the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution and an obvious target for regulators. In 2010, power plants produced more than 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide and accounted for 40 percent of America’s total carbon dioxide emissions, according to the EPA.

In April 2012, the EPA proposed its first-ever rule to limit carbon dioxide pollution from new power plants. Existing power plants are exempt, so the rule would only apply to future power plants and would not cap emissions from plants that are currently polluting the atmosphere.

The EPA told Truthout that it has no specific timeline for implementing the rule and is currently reviewing 2 million comments on the proposal. A final rule will be issued after the review.

The proposed rule has met tough opposition from the coal and energy industries while rallying environmental groups, which are pushing the EPA to finalize the rule and then quickly move to cap emissions from existing power plants, as well.

By setting a carbon emissions limit at 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour for new power plants, the EPA’s proposed rule would require that new, carbon-reducing technologies be installed in America’s next fleet of power plants.

The proposed rule could push new facilities to rely more heavily on natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal and is available at historically low prices due to the ongoing gas rush made possible by the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

New power plants may also install what is known as carbon capture technology, which pumps carbon dioxide deep underground. The EPA and some environmental groups are touting the new technology, which is still under development, but some environmentalists and researchers worry that carbon capture could cause minor earthquakes and would be too costly to gain interest from the industry.

The proposed rule, along with other EPA greenhouse gas initiatives, has already survived legal challenges from a coalition of coal companies and industry groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce. The rule could face more challenges after being finalized.

Conservatives and industry groups have accused the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal” and have fought any attempt by EPA to regulate power plants. Rules limiting the amount of mercury and other potentially deadly toxins produced by coal-burning power plants, for example, were held up for years by industry lawsuits and regulatory challenges.

Regulating Fracking Emissions

Unconventional drilling techniques commonly called fracking have made new reserves of oil and natural gas available to a growing domestic oil and gas industry. Fracking has expanded in rural areas across the country and become one of the nation’s most high-profile environmental controversies.

Fracking faces widespread grassroots opposition, but the Obama administration has said it supports the growing industry as long as drilling is done safely. Concerns over water contamination and rural industrialization dominate the fracking debate, but recent studies have shown that fracking contributes to climate change by emitting a considerable amount of the greenhouse gas methane.

In an open letter to Obama, the Clean Air Task Force told the president that the EPA could reap “almost immediate climate benefits” by regulating methane emissions from fracking.

Pound for pound, methane warms the planet over 70 times more than carbon dioxide, according to the Clean Air Task Force. Methane also degrades from the atmosphere at a faster rate, so reducing methane emissions quickly would have the near-term benefit of reducing temperatures in coming decades.

The EPA issued regulations last year requiring the industry to capture some methane and dangerous pollutants such as benzene, but the rule does not address leaking and venting methane from oil and gas pipelines and infrastructure.

The leaking and venting of methane from the oil and gas production systems is the nation’s largest source of methane pollution, the task force said, and comprehensive methane emissions standards from the EPA would save money, reduce air pollution that causes health problems, and help slow climate change.