President Obama said Tuesday he will not approve the Keystone XL pipeline if building it would generate more greenhouse gas emissions than not constructing it, suggesting his administration needed to take much more aggressive steps to fight climate change
Speaking on the steps of a 218-year old building on Georgetown University’s campus, Obama described the new test for Keystone and a slew of climate initiatives as part of his generation’s moral obligation to protect the planet.
“As a president, as a father, I’m here to say we need to act,” he declared, to loud applause from an audience that included college students as well as other supporters. ”I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
While the State Department is still conducting an environmental review of the massive pipeline that would ship crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, Obama said, “Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”
“The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” he added. “It is relevant.”
According to a senior administration who asked not to be identified because the final decision has not been made, the administration will examine whether vetoing the project--which would mean the oil would likely be shipped by rail—would translate into higher emissions than building it.
Obama also invoked his executive authority to impose the first carbon limits on existing power plants and require all federal projects to withstand rising seas and more intense storms.
The laundry list of policies Obama outlined Tuesday afternoon — some new, many of which build on existing programs — hint at both the opportunity and challenge the president faces when it comes to global warming.
Freed from the need to compromise with Congress, Obama can enact regulations and issue directives that will change both government and the marketplace before he leaves office. But he is embarking on a piecemeal approach that targets individual sectors of the economy, with many of the details to be sketched out in the next two years.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, whose group has already helped secure the retirement or announced retirement of 147 coal plants in the United States, said the speech marks a turning point in the nation’s energy policy.
“The president realizes that you can’t combat climate change without a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry,” Brune said in an interview. “What has us most encouraged by the president’s speech is he is lacing up his gloves and getting ready for that fight.”
But even as Obama answers a central question facing him in his second term — by instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a proposed rule to regulate carbon dioxide from existing coal and gas-fired utilities by June 2014 and finalize it a year later — it remains unclear exactly how the agency will do that, and what it will cost industry.
The EPA has not yet begun drafting the rule, according to individuals familiar with the agency’s plans who asked not to be identified, and has only devised an “outreach” document aimed at starting discussions with state officials and other key constituencies. Furthermore EPA will now re-propose its rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants in September, according to these individuals, and will establish separate standards for gas and coal-fired power plants as the utility industry had sought.
Jeffrey Holmstead, who represents several utilities as a partner at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the administration will not specify how much the new power plant rule will achieve in emission reductions or what it will cost to implement, since “EPA just doesn’t know what’s realistic because the statute doesn’t give a lot of options.”
Kyle Danish, an attorney at the law firm Van Ness Feldman, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide from existing coal plants required a “novel interpretation of this part of the Clean Air Act,” because there is no best available technology for reducing CO2 emissions. “It’s a little bit of a twist but that’s the tool that they have,” he said.
Holmstead, who headed EPA’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said the approach highlights the administration’s dilemma: “The White House faces a challenge because there’s not a single, big, bold action that shows they can deal with climate change.”