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On the Environment

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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President’s Climate Action Plan is a Mixed Bag

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

I want to make a few points about the climate plan President Obama spoke about yesterday. It’s the kitchen sink of climate policy, so there is a lot to say – but I’ll keep it brief.

Overall, this is a step in the right direction simply because the President stood up and gave a speech completely dedicated to addressing climate change. Climate was absent from the campaign trail and has only received piecemeal attention from the White House otherwise. While I have some concerns about the details of the plan, its mere existence is a starting point for a dialouge. Unfortunately, it is a dialouge that should be much further along.


The President’s plan presents what he himself calls an “all of the above energy policy.” That’s a reassuring phrase. My concern is that one of the above—namely coal—is one of the top drivers of climate pollution. I am not suggesting that a better climate policy would require the immediate retirement of all the country’s coal plants; that is patently irresponsible. But a better climate policy would at least recognize that coal is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Specifically, the White House plan proposes to support “clean coal” through loan guarantees for technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and “advanced fossil energy projects,” which presumably includes technologies like coal gasification. The words “clean coal” peppered through this plan is worrisome. There is “cleaner” coal, which emits less carbon, less sulfur, or has other pollutant reductions, but no coal is clean in the sense that wind, solar, or energy efficiency is clean.  Coal gasification can reduce pollutants and CCS can reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, but only if utilities can bring the technology to scale. But new technologies do not address the upstream impacts of coal, from mining to transportation, or the downstream waste storage problems.

Moreover, CCS may not ever be the technology that this plan envisions. When attached to a coal plant, CCS technology requires electricity to operate. That electricity comes directly from the coal plant to which it is attached, which means that CCS will reduce the amount of electricity that leaves the coal plant and goes to homes and businesses. Some estimate that CCS technology could require 40 percent of a coal plant’s electrical output. This means that a coal plant would need to increase its output by 40 percent to make up for the electricity that goes to the CCS process, thereby burning over 40 percent more coal.

The loan guarantee plan is a sort of fossil fuel subsidy, albeit a subsidy that will help reduce the cost of private borrowing for “advanced fossil energy projects” rather than offer direct payments to the industry. In fact, elsewhere in his plan the President promises to reduce direct subsidies.  Coal is king because it is cheap, and it is cheap, in part, because it has had help from the government. Reducing subsidies will help alternative energy sources compete.

One of the most valuable subsidies that coal power receives is permission to emit greenhouse gases, creating a significant social cost but bearing almost none of that cost internally. The new climate plan promises to remove this subsidy as well and that is an important highlight: President Obama promises to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt carbon standards for new and existing power plants. The process is underway (albeit delayed) for new-plant standards but previous EPA statements indicated that the Agency would not address existing plants. Perhaps yesterday’s announcement will change that.


Everything I’ve so far discussed is aimed at reducing climate change. These issues, and many others, have been at the center of the climate change debate, in one form or another, since the beginning. Adaptation, however, has been mostly absent. Yet adaptation is critical. The climate ball is rolling and mitigation seeks to slow it. Adaptation helps us avoid getting flattened by it. Adaptation helps sure-up infrastructure and make society more resilient to change. Local governments have been working tirelessly to adapt and organizations such as Mayor Bloomberg’s C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have been supporting urban resilience efforts. But adaptation has not been a major part of the national dialouge.

With respect to mitigation, the President’s plan largely works at the margin. But with respect to adaptation, whether it is strengthening coastlines or protecting hospitals from floods, the President has finally raised its policy profile and that will likely be the biggest achievement of this plan.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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