Climate Change Resurfaces in President’s Second Inaugural Address

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his remarks at the 57th presidential inauguration, President Barack Obama discussed a topic Americans hadn’t heard much about since his November victory speech—climate change. In the nationally televised speech following his oath of office, Obama elevated the issue of climate change into the top tier of his second-term priorities, alongside gun control and immigration reform.

“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 path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition—we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

How would he do it? Scientific American had some answers based on written responses Obama provided the news outlet in November—touching on reduced oil dependence and clean energy. More details about Obama’s climate initiatives could come during the State of the Union Address Feb. 12. Expectations generally, and of a legislative solution in particular, were tempered by the statements of White House Spokesman Jay Carney the day after the speech. Other energy insiders think the administration will lean toward the same low-key approach they’ve taken since 2009.

Cutting Carbon without Congress

Although it is too soon to tell whether a commitment to climate change in a second term will translate into a push for legislation in 2013, there are other options available to Obama reports The Washington Post. Chief among them is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and impose carbon limits on existing coal- and gas-fired utilities, which are responsible for some 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually—or about 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. These “stationary sources” are covered in section 111 of the Act, which has provisions for regulating new sources under 111(b) and existing sources under 111(d). How these rules are constructed will help to define Obama’s term.

The Natural Resources Defense Council released a detailed plan for constructing these regulations appropriately and cutting carbon emissions from power plants more than 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. The plan, NRDC notes, could stimulate investments of more than $90 billion in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources over the next eight years. Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, alongside other leading experts, have produced a report that looks at the options, limitations and impacts of regulating existing sources of carbon dioxide under section 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act. It concludes that states have choices and the flexibility to develop cost-effective plans when regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. This is mainly due to the broad language of the section, which can be interpreted in many ways.

By April, the EPA is expected to complete carbon emissions standards for new power plants—closely followed by those for existing sources. As The National Journal notes, Obama’s climate change vow could make the EPA a political target.

Keystone XL a Test for ‘All of the Above’ Energy Strategy

While Obama has stressed the importance of the nation’s growing oil and gas supplies in his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, coal, gas and oil went unmentioned Monday during his inauguration speech Monday.

Obama’s words regarding climate change will soon be tested, some environmental groups said, when he decides whether or not to approve the roughly 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that will carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Obama vetoed the original plan for the pipeline. Among the main obstacles Obama cited for delaying the project a year ago was that landowners in Nebraska have worried the pipeline could contaminate the Ogallala aquifer. Now that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has approved a revised route through his state, that objection no longer applies. The BBC reports that Obama’s green energy agenda could be defined by this decision—even though any action is still months away.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.