Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Recent Climate Change News

Over the past week, the Obama administration has announced two initiatives to address the threat of climate change. First, the EPA is drafting greenhouse gas regulations that will take effect in 2011. The current version restricts only large emitters such as power plants.

Ms. Jackson’s proposal would require facilities emitting at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide and five other pollutants a year to obtain construction and operating permits. The other gases are methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

The threshold is 100 times higher than that required for other types of pollutants like sulfur dioxide that have more acute health and environmental effects.

Ms. Jackson said that while the proposed rule would affect about 14,000 large sources of carbon dioxide, most were already subject to clean-air permitting requirements because they emit other pollutants.

By raising the standard to 25,000 tons, the new rule exempts millions of smaller sources of carbon dioxide emissions like bakeries, soft drink bottlers, dry cleaners and hospitals.
Industry groups are already attacking both the EPA's authority to issue greenhouse gas regulations and Jackson's focus on large sources. It seems to me that the first question has been settled by previous lawsuits, though perhaps lawyers can devise some new angle to prevent implementation. As for the focus on large sources, yes it is true that climate change is a global phenomenon and large American emitters are not the only problem. But with a problem this big it makes some sense to address the biggest contributors first since they represent the most potential for reductions. Smaller sources need to be addressed as well but are somewhat less urgent.

Second, an executive order mandates that federal agencies reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts such as water use.
The White House said the order would result in substantial energy savings, which would mean savings for taxpayers.

It won't be known until the individual agencies report their targets how much they've cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the agencies set their own plans, the White House gave some requirements, including a 26 percent improvement in water efficiency and a 30 percent reduction in the use of petroleum for vehicles. Both goals are to be accomplished by 2020.

The White House Office of Management and Budget plans to grade each agency's ability to meet its own target and post the results on the Web.
Since the federal government is such a large energy user, with 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles, improving the efficiency of federal energy use should take at least a small chunk out of our national greenhouse gas emissions. At best, the executive order could spur the development of more environmentally friendly vehicles and building practices that could then be adopted in the private sector. Yet it remains unclear how much of a greenhouse gas reduction federal agencies will actually achieve. Already, military operations will be exempt, and they represent a large chunk of federal spending and energy use. Also, not everything that reduces energy or fossil fuel use is environmentally friendly. Biofuels, for one, have a multitude of problems, from making food more expensive to the high energy cost of production. LEED standards, as mentioned before on this blog, do not adequately account for wildlife impacts.

Despite the lingering questions, both actions are welcome, especially at a time when the passage of a climate change law in Congress appears to be just out of reach, at least for the time being. Carol Browner has stated that no climate bill is likely to pass this year, even as Kerry and Boxer finally introduced one in the Senate. Executive branch regulations may be the only way to start significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., at least in the near term.