The Capitol Energy Report with Matthew Stepp
On Tuesday June 25th, President Obama announced his new federal climate change initiative aimed at reducing U.S. carbon emissions and better preparing the nation for the impacts of extreme weather. In his much-anticipated remarks at Georgetown University, the President laid out three main tranches of policies that almost exclusively require on executive branch action and not Congressional legislation.

In an #EnergyChat with TheEnergyCollective.com’s Jesse Jenkins, I discussed the major elements of the President’s speech and proposed climate strategy, which you can view here, or below. In this post, I also run through the key takeaways on the new White House climate strategy.

First, the President proposed a number of initiatives to directly reduce carbon emissions. Most notably, he called on EPA to accelerate developing and implementing new carbon regulations on existing power plants as well as finish ongoing rulemaking regarding new power plants. While little details are known of what new regulations on existing power plants would look like, it is strongly assumed this would effectively reduce — if not entirely end — the use of coal and, at least in the short term, increase the use of natural gas.

Second, the President proposed sweeping new policies to address national climate resilience and preparedness. Namely, this includes using the potential impacts of climate change as a key metric in how federal policies are implemented, such as HHS creating more resilient hospital infrastructure, developing better disaster-resilience standards for roads, rail, bridges, and tunnels, as well as creating new Regional Agricultural Climate Hubs to support farmers dealing with extreme weather. The President also wants to leverage rebuilding areas inflicted by Hurricane Sandy to test pilot projects on building more resilient coastal communities.

Third, the President intends on redoubling efforts to form bilateral and multilateral international agreements to reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as HFCs and black carbon. For example, the United States recently agreed with China to find ways to phase out HFCs by 2050 (Eds. note: see TheEnergyCollective.com's full coverage of this diplomatic breakthrough here). The President also called for continued U.S. engagement in broader international climate negotiations through the United Nations, but it’s clear that a portfolio approach by country and pollutant will be emphasized.

While the President’s landmark climate speech covered a lot of policy ground and did so in an atypically aggressive tone compared to previous mentions of climate policy, it was also sobering. The President’s proposals add up to, at best, modest cuts in U.S. carbon emissions over the next decade or two. This is a far cry from the deep carbon cuts needed to actually address climate change globally. It’s a stunning recognition that the President, by himself, cannot do much at all to directly mitigate climate change. Congressional action is desperately needed.

At no point was this more true than the President’s scant discussion of energy innovation. In fact, the White House fact sheet that complements the speech lists only a few modest energy innovation proposals that are a far cry from an aggressive push. The fact sheet calls for an increase of $3 billion per year in federal energy research, development and demonstration (RD&D) investments, up from about $5 billion currently sufficient to bring funding levels back to the temporary peak seen during the era of the Recovery Act—but a far cry from the doubling or more of federal energy R&D investments recommended by the Presidential Council of Economic Advisors (PCAST) as well as a range of other energy experts and organizations. Crucially, Congressional action will be required to deliver even this more modest proposed funding increase.

The President also called for a couple of other innovation-related measures that may be pursued without Congressional action. These include opening up more federal land for demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies as well as instituting a Quadrennial Energy Review to coordinate energy and innovation policies across government—a proposal modeled after the Defense Department’s well-established Quadrennial Defense Review.

For now at least, larger items such as tripling energy R&D, reforming energy deployment policies, and implementing much needed institutional reforms are nowhere to be seen in the President’s climate plan, presumably because each measure requires legislative action that is sorely lacking in the current Congress.

Of course, the President could have used the speech to stake out a strong leadership role by backing aggressive energy innovation policies and explaining to the public their critical importance for long-term climate objectives. Their absence — even policies the President has supported in the past and are currently on the books — detracts from this new iteration of the President’s climate policy. This is certainly not an initiative aimed at truly solving climate change — or rather driving deep emissions reductions. Instead, it seems to be about doing all that the President can by himself while assuming Congress has checked out of the climate policy debate, at least for now.


More from "The Capitol Energy Report" with Matthew Stepp:

Graphic by Jesse Wells: www.JesseWellsArt.com