5 Things Obama Said About Climate Change Today That Could Impact the Southeast

This blog was co-authored by SACE Coastal Climate and Energy Coordinator, Chris Carnevale.

“There’s no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change. But when it comes to the world we leave our children, we owe it to them to do what we can.” – President Obama, June 22, 2013

At Georgetown University this afternoon, President Obama unveiled a major suite of policies which provide a high-level view of his plans for addressing climate change in his second term in office. Although addressing climate change is often considered a controversial issue, several polls over the last year have shown that there is significant support for climate action, with the latest polls showing support for EPA action by 87% of Americans. Though the South often lags behind other regions in accepting changes to its energy mix, there is real demand for progress in this area where clean energy solutions and carbon emission limitations are most needed.

President Obama’s comprehensive plan is multi-faceted and approaches the American response to climate from many different angles, including reducing pollution, investing in clean energy and preparing for the impacts of global warming.  While we have seen similar outlines of climate and energy policy from the Administration before, this is the most comprehensive compilation of such policies they have released to date. Though we think a large portion of the plan refers to development in other areas of the U.S., several of the highlights could make a splash in our region.

Here are 5 main take-aways from Obama’s climate plan for the Southeast:

1) For the first time, EPA will set carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.

The key component of Obama’s plan is likely to have significant impact in the Southeast where coal plants contribute an unparalleled amount of carbon dioxide when compared to the rest of the country. In 2012 alone, over 366 million tons of carbon dioxide came from roughly 270 coal units at 82 power plants in eight Southeastern states. Many of these power plants are aging and already lack modern pollution controls to meet existing air and water pollution control standards. In a final effort to achieve his carbon reduction goals of 17% of 2005 carbon emission levels by 2020, the President has pledged to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants – the nation’s largest source of climate change-inducing pollution. 

Obama’s plan includes issuance of a Memorandum of Understanding to all states to work swiftly, diligently, and closely with EPA to develop the existing-source carbon rule and finalize the new-source proposed rule.  He pushed back on criticism of this policy by reminding critics that “every time America sets clear standards for our air and our water and for our children’s health,” doomsayers say the economy will be hurt, yet “every time, they’ve been wrong.”  He alluded to the pushback that was given against key public health policy victories:  the Clean Air Act, the Acid Rain Program, the restriction of certain carcinogenic chemicals in plastics, removing lead from gasoline, removing CFCs from refrigerants, and even the fuel standards that Obama himself has imposed on the auto industry.  In each of these instances, critics have warned that environmental regulations would kill these industries.  Yet interestingly, they all survived just fine and incidentally produce better products today while posing less harm to public health.

One of Obama’s clear messages today was that “if you look at our history, don’t bet against American industry, don’t bet against American workers.”  Our businesses have been global leaders for centuries and new regulations will help jump start innovation and continue the legacy of leadership.

2) Renewed investment in clean energy solutions are mandatory to pieces of the puzzle.

We have a largely untapped potential for clean energy solutions in the region, with immature efficiency standards and renewable energy commitments.  North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast with a renewable energy portfolio standard, yet we have immense renewable energy resources that could meet a huge portion of our energy demands.  With improvements in wind technology, the Southeast has significant potential to expand onshore wind, and we have over two-thirds of the offshore wind potential on the East Coast–enough to power millions of homes.  As for solar, the Southeast is second only to the desert Southwest in its solar potential. Enough said there.  Obama’s commitments to supporting clean energy research, development, and deployment will help capture some of these indigenous resources which will serve as local economic drivers.

Furthermore, there are a significant number of federal assets in the South, including a high density of military bases, major Department of Energy facilities, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation’s largest public-power utility. The federal government has a unique ability to lead by example in this region with the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.  Obama has upped the procurement mandate for federal facilities,  which means that 20%, of federal facilities’ power must be generated by a renewable resource.  The Department of Defense has been even more aggressive, with certain branches, such as Navy/Marines reaching for 50% renewable by 2020.  With the President appointing the TVA board, and with the tremendous untapped potential of both energy efficiency and renewable energy – coupled with the need to further retire coal plants – TVA could very well become the living laboratory for the President’s new plan.

Billion Dollar Weather Disasters3) We need to be more prepared to deal with climate change impacts and extreme weather.

Our coastlines, abundant waterways, and climate patterns leave us supremely vulnerable to increasingly severe storms and extreme weather events, sea level rise and flooding.  In fact, the Southeast has borne the brunt of extreme weather catastrophes for three decades, hosting the majority of $1 billion+ weather disasters since the 1980s.  Obama’s plan presents efforts to make coastal communities more resilient, directing agencies to support local investment in strengthening communities against future extreme weather and other climate impacts.  We have seen from the Obama administration, and will continue to see, partnerships with local and regional entities to build our resilience against climate impacts.

4) This is a strong approach, but there are still gaps to be filled.

Obama’s renewable energy goals fall short of bold, but are a step in the right direction. More disturbing are his continued commitments to natural gas, nuclear energy, and “advanced” coal power. While many claim that Obama is waging a war on coal, today he committed to allocate $8 billion in financing to “advanced” coal research and development.

While highlighting the success we’ve had in reducing our carbon pollution, in his speech Obama cited nuclear as a positive part of this success, promoting that “we’re building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades — in Georgia and South Carolina.” These four proposed reactors, two at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle and two at SCANA’s V.C. Summer plant, are extremely expensive, rely on anti-consumer state legislation that allows the big power companies to charge ratepayers in advance for some of the costs associated with the projects, along with federal taxpayer subsidies including the offer of an $8.3 billion taxpayer-financed conditional loan guarantee for Vogtle, have experienced cost overruns and scheduling delays and are far from complete. These are poor examples to portray as champions in helping reduce carbon emissions in an efficient, cost-effective and free-market driven manner. Unfortunately his plan encourages investment in highly speculative and far from cost-effective small modular reactors (SMRs) that just won the Golden Fleece award from Taxpayers for Common Sense because they represent such a boondoggle for taxpayers.

His plan is also vague on details of how he is planning on addressing various environmental issues related to the natural gas boom, particularly the issue of methane leakage with natural gas production and transport, which could cancel much of environmental benefit of natural gas over coal. Furthermore, though Obama’s recognition that the Keystone pipeline could be a dangerous investment for America’s future was a huge step in the right direction, his support and praise of nuclear and clean coal are much less impressive. Lastly, while his commitment to ensuring that EPA finalize all carbon emission reduction rules is notable and provides essential leadership at a critical juncture, we’ve yet to hear of a deadline for completion and are cognizant that our Congress routinely attempts to thwart EPA’s ability to act on such significant issues despite their charge to do so.

5) We owe it to future generations to take action now.

Today’s speech is the clearest sign yet that the Administration is ready to gear up, provide leadership, and take charge on dealing with climate change. As Obama made clear today, we don’t have to “choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy. [...] It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.  We’ve got to look after our children; we have to look after our future; and we have to grow the economy and create jobs.”

However, the President emphasized that his announcement today is a step in the right direction, and we agree that it is.  It is a modest, reasonable proposal to deal with one of the most pressing issues that faces humanity today.  It doesn’t go nearly far enough to get to where we need to be, but it’s a start towards protecting future generations – a start that is decades overdue.

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