Obama leaves climate-change fighting on shelf for nowPublished by MAC on 2013-06-19
"A president who wants to lead on climate change does not have many tools that do not involve Congress - [but] one of them is NEPA", says a former official in the Clinton administration.
But Obama has failed to use even this modest environmental protection device, apparently bowing down to pressure from Republicans and icons of industry.
Meanwhile - as China's leadership renews its commitments to "renewable" and cleaner energy standards for industry (see separate story) - Bill Kovacs, a senior energy advisor with the US Chamber of Commerce, points his finger in an easterly direction:
"Let's say you want to build a solar farm. Well, were those solar panels built in China using coal power? How far back do we trace these supposed impacts?"
Mr Kovacs should surely heed the old adage: Those in greenhouses shouldn't throw stones - especially at others trying to escape from their own greenhouse.
[Comment by Nostromo Research]
Obama leaves climate change-fighting tool on shelf for now
By Patrick Rucker and Valerie Volcovici
16 June 2013
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has vowed to tackle climate change in his second term, but so far has not acted to strengthen a tool that does not require backing from Congress - the National Environmental Policy Act.
NEPA, a statute that dates to the Nixon administration, calls on officials to weigh whether projects such as highways, dams or oil drilling could harm the environment.
While it does not have the power to block development, NEPA forces officials to consider the environment before approving federal projects, and the White House has proposed that climate change should rank high among those concerns.
In early 2010, the White House suggested it would make an update to NEPA that would require counting greenhouse gas emissions among the impacts worthy of a NEPA review. But those standards have been on ice ever since they were written.
"We are taking the time necessary to carefully consider all input from the public, stakeholders and federal agencies," said Taryn Tuss, a spokeswoman for the White House Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), the steward for NEPA.
Although changes to NEPA don't require White House review, several other cabinet agency rules have been held up by that process amid election-year politics and Republican complaints of costly over-regulation.
Democratic lawmakers have called on the White House to weigh climate change in proposals like the Keystone XL oil pipeline and coal export terminals planned for the Pacific Northwest.
Industry groups and Republicans, though, have warned Obama to keep NEPA out of the climate change debate.
Former White House officials say Obama must soon test the rule's power to confront climate change if he wants to cement a legacy of trying to wean the nation off polluting fossil fuels.
"A president who wants to lead on climate change does not have many tools that do not involve Congress. One of them is NEPA," said George Frampton, who led the CEQ in the final years of Bill Clinton's presidency.
Several former U.S. officials said the White House is at least a year away from blessing a climate change component of NEPA - if such a move is taken at all.
"I would think any revision is a ways off," said a former EPA official who dealt with NEPA issues.
Efforts by Congress to set mandatory limits on carbon emissions failed to pass in 2009 and 2010 amid intense partisan wrangling. Other administration pollution rules have also been challenged in the courts.
But with little hope of moving new comprehensive climate change legislation through Congress, the White House is running out of time to use its executive power to confront an issue that Obama has said requires urgent action.
"No one measure will halt climate change," said Jessica Goad of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with ties to the White House.
"But this is certainly one modest step. And we are talking about rules that have been on the shelf for three years."
The administration has recently announced some actions targeting climate change, including a deal with China to reduce HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
But it has given no sign it will finish the more controversial NEPA update, which could have an impact on some major energy projects.
Since it came on the books in 1970, NEPA has been used as a tool to scrutinize - and sometimes stall - big government developments.
And while environmentalists are eager to use the statute to consider the long-term impacts of climate change, industry groups worry the added layer could be crippling to projects.
"Let's say you want to build a solar farm. Well, were those solar panels built in China using coal power? How far back do we trace these supposed impacts?" said Bill Kovacs, a senior energy adviser with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Republican lawmakers agree. In April, 33 senators signed a letter discouraging the White House from finalizing the standards, saying NEPA would be a way to regulate carbon emissions without congressional approval.
And some Democratic lawmakers do have big plans for NEPA.
The governors of Oregon and Washington want the White House to apply NEPA as it weighs whether to speak up against coal export terminals planned for the Pacific Northwest.
The statute should not only weigh the impact of exporting U.S. coal but how burning the fuel in furnaces overseas could worsen climate change, the governors argue.
While the NEPA rules remain unfinished, government agencies are coming up with different conclusions about what some controversial projects will mean for climate change.
A State Department review found that burning oil sands fuel would not substantially worsen climate change if the Keystone XL pipeline were permitted to cross the border from Canada, while the EPA found the impact to be significant.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the coal export terminals, has declined to weigh global impacts while local governors have pressed for such studies.
The Chamber of Commerce's Kovacs says the White House is wise to move slowly as it considers retooling NEPA but former officials say there is no time for delay.
"Time is running out to do something meaningful that will have an effect in Obama's second term," Frampton said.
(Reporting by Patrick Rucker and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Walsh)
EPA confirmation delay raises questions about U.S. carbon rules
17 June 2013
With a Senate vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency still in limbo, speculation is rising about the fate of a proposed emissions rule for new power plants that was scheduled to have been finished in April.
Obama nominated Gina McCarthy, now the EPA's top air and radiation official, to head the agency in March. The Senate Environment and Public Works panel backed her a month ago.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will not schedule a floor vote on McCarthy's nomination until after the chamber finishes working on immigration reform, which could be in early July. One Republican senator continues a hold on the nomination in an ongoing dispute involving a Mississippi River levee project.
Industry and environmental groups have been waiting for the EPA to complete one of its most eagerly anticipated regulations, the so-called New Source Performance Standard for new power plants.
Under the rule, which some say could play a major role in Obama's climate strategy, no new power plant could emit more than 1,000lb CO2/MWh - about the same as a new natural-gas combined-cycle power plant.
The emissions target is far lower than even the most efficient coal plants today, which emit carbon at around 1,800 lb CO2/MWh. It would effectively rule out the use of coal in the electric sector without installing carbon capture technology, which is not yet commercially viable.
Green groups say the rule will be a major first step to cutting carbon emissions in the power sector, while many coal users and backers say it will kill the U.S. coal industry.
The EPA missed an April 13 deadline to finalize the rule. It has been silent on its plans since then, but some analysts think the agency is tweaking the rule to make it more acceptable to electric utilities and other industries, perhaps by setting separate standards for coal- and natural gas-fired units.
"This certainly makes sense, as it would make the rule more legally defensible," said Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator and now a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani.
The National Mining Association, a lobbying group for the mining industry, had a 45-minute meeting with McCarthy on Wednesday to discuss the power plant standard and other issues.
"It was part of an ongoing dialogue with EPA on a variety of issues that are very important to the industry," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the group.
The Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG), a coalition of utilities that have challenged EPA regulations in court, tried unsuccessfully to sue the agency over the new power plant rules in December, even before they were finalized.
The delay of McCarthy's confirmation is worrying some environmental groups that want Obama to act on a pledge he made in his inaugural address in February to take action on climate change - with or without Congress' blessing.
The months-long process "hamstrings her ability to do her current job and future job - which is one of her opponents' goals," Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the progressive Center for American Progress, said of McCarthy.
Meanwhile, 60 days have passed since three environmental groups and a dozen states and cities filed their intent to sue the agency for missing the April 13 deadline. Those parties could take legal action as soon as Monday.
(Editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)
U.S. states, greens delay lawsuit, await Obama climate plan
18 June 2013
WASHINGTON - Environmental groups and a dozen states and cities said Monday they will delay planned legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying they will wait to see if the White House soon unveils a climate policy strategy.
The attorney generals of New York and nine other states, along with three major green groups, had planned to sue the EPA this week because it missed a deadline in April to finalize emissions standards for new electric power plants.
Two months after notifying the agency they intended to sue, the consortium had expected to file as early as Monday, but backed off temporarily to allow the White House to disclose its climate plans.
"Due to public reports that the president will be announcing major action on climate change very soon, the Attorney General has decided to postpone a lawsuit on this matter for a short period," said Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
President Barack Obama reportedly told campaign donors last week he will unveil a package of measures to combat climate change, possibly including EPA curbs on power plant emissions.
Many of those donors are ardent opponents of TransCanada Corp's planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil produced in Canada's oil sands regions to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Some policy analysts reason that, if Obama approves the pipeline, he will face pressure to announce strong climate measures as an offsetting measure.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that planned to sue, said in a statement that whatever Obama rolls out should advance his previous pledges on climate action.
"The president has set a goal to cut our carbon emissions by 17 percent - from our 2005 levels - by 2020. We need a set of actions that will get us there," said David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the environmental group.
Donors briefed on possible climate measures said they did not know details about the plans, leading to speculation about what policies would be included.
Some said recent low-key announcements by the White House, such as a deal with China to limit ozone-harming hydrofluorocarbons, or a plan announced earlier this month to make the electric transmission system more efficient, signal the start of a wider approach.
"The administration is putting some common sense building blocks for climate progress into place," said Vickie Patton, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
"There is a strong sense of urgency given the gravity of the problem and hope for solutions after the U.S.-China accord to jointly curb some of the most potent climate pollutants."
But other analysts expect the president to be more aggressive in anticipating of approving the Keystone pipeline.
"If it weren't for activism on Keystone XL, Obama might be able to get by with small steps alone," said Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici.; Editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)
World's wind turbines to cross the 300 gigawatt mark - data
17 June 2013
The world will have enough wind turbines to generate more than 300 gigawatts of power - the equivalent of 114 nuclear power plants - by the end of the year, industry figures show.
As Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa add turbines, the figure represents modest growth compared with a year ago, when the overall total capacity was just over 280 gigawatts.
"Worldwide installed wind power will exceed 300 gigawatts of power capacity this year," Peter Sennekamp, media officer for the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), said, citing figures compiled by EWEA and the Global Wind Energy Council.
Europe, which has led the world on wind, still represents around a third of all capacity, with more than 100 gigawatts, but its growth has been stalled by uncertainty as financial crisis has meant abrupt changes to subsidy regimes.
The European Commission, the European Union's executive, has supported the idea of harmonisation of subsidies across the European Union and said it will publish guidelines before the summer break in August.
However, EU authorities cannot dictate to member states what kind of energy sources they use and how they are financed.
The most heated debate has been in Germany, ahead of elections in September, where the cost of energy and progress of implementing the nation's Energiewende - or transition to green energy and away from nuclear fuel - are election issues.
Heavy industry has attacked renewable subsidies, arguing they add to costs and damage competitiveness, especially when the United States benefits from cheap shale gas.
Representatives of the renewable industry say they are working to produce energy that can compete economically with traditional sources, which would lower political risk.
They say they have made progress on onshore wind and solar, but for the huge scale of offshore wind, a technology still in its infancy, subsidies are essential, probably for the rest of the decade.
"We see six to seven (offshore) projects under way and then there's nothing. There's no decision taken by investors," Joerg Buddenberg, CEO EWE Vertrieb, part of Germany's EWE Group , told reporters, referring to the German market.
Wind energy executives note conventional fuel sources have long benefited from support in the form of tax breaks for oil and gas and government help in disposing of spent nuclear fuel.
To mark global wind day on Saturday June 15, they are calling on world leaders meeting for G8 talks next week to stick to a commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
China makes fresh promises on air pollution, pledges support for solar
15 June 2013
SHANGHAI - China's cabinet approved new measures to combat air pollution on Friday, in the latest step by China's new leadership to address the country's enormous environmental problems, with pollution a key source of rising social discontent in China.
The government also promised to support China's troubled solar power industry, despite problems with overcapacity and ongoing trade disputes with the United States and Europe.
In a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, the State Council approved 10 anti-pollution measures, the council said in a statement posted on its website late Friday.
In particular, the State Council promised to:
- Accelerate the installation of pollution control equipment on small, coal-fuelled refineries.
- Curb the growth of high-energy-consuming industries like steel, cement, aluminum, and glass.
- Reduce emissions per unit of GDP in key industries by at least 30 percent by the end of 2017.
- Improve indicators used to evaluate the environmental impact of new projects and deny administrative approvals, financing, land, and other support to projects that fail to meet high standards.
- Strengthen enforcement and collection of fees and penalties that companies pay based on their emissions.
- Use legal action to force industries to upgrade pollution controls and establish or revise industry-level emissions standards.
The country's new top leaders, who took power in a once-in-a-decade political transition late last year, have promised to tackle China's pollution problem. The government has made similar promises over the last decade, but enforcement has often been lacking, especially at the local level.
Protests over pollution are becoming more frequent in China, as the country's increasingly affluent urban population begins to object to the model of growth at all costs that has fueled the economy for three decades.
Friday's State Council statement also acknowledged difficulties afflicting China's solar industry but pledged to maintain support for the industry through "reformed methods".
Specific measures include price support for the sale of photovoltaic electricity to electricity grids and requiring grid operators to purchase all the electricity that solar generators produce.
(Reporting by Gabriel Wildau; Editing by Michael Perry)