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What’s in a speech – Barack Obama’s Climate Change Plan

On 25 June 2013, President Barack Obama spoke to students at Georgetown University announcing a series of executive actions that he has taken or intends to take to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and to make the US more climate change resilient. This blog provides an intuitive observation on the future direction of US climate change policy as revealed by the themes and word choices used in the speech, and its relevance in supporting CCS. It also compares the speech with the details contained in the Climate Change Plan (the Plan) for consistency of emphasis.

The speech contains the political narrative and context in which mitigation and adaptation (i.e. climate change) action is to be taken within the US, which in many cases serves to soften the Plan’s messaging.  For example, while the Plan is strongly supportive of deploying renewable energy in an effort to make the US less dependent on fossil energy it also recognizes that this does not mean that it will suddenly stop producing fossil fuels because the "economy wouldn’t run very well if it did".

This additional explanation links secure and affordable fossil energy to economic growth and job creation, and seems to suggest a higher priority in comparison to the associated mitigation challenges – for which the clean energy technology agenda is considered so critical.

The most prominent phrase in the President’s speech is ‘carbon pollution’ which indicates that the President’s speech places an emphasis on explaining the causal relationship between greenhouse gas emissions (carbon pollution) and the impacts of dangerous climate change. Such a relationship is premised on the basis of the prevailing science as well as the Supreme Court’s determination, within the context of the Clean Air Act (1970), that greenhouse gases (GHG) were "pollutants" within the meaning of the Act and that EPA was required to determine if they endangered the public health and welfare - which they did under the Obama Administration.

In this regard, the speech also highlights a need to reduce carbon levels (i.e. mitigation) and emphasises a key role for clean energy technology innovation, including fuel switching out of coal to natural gas and renewables. While market forces have and will continue to drive the push towards gas, as long as gas prices remain relatively low, emission performance standards promulgated by EPA for new and existing electric utility generating units will also drive lower emission power plants – be they fossil based or other technology. In his direction to EPA concerning the standards, the President encourages exploration of market based instruments and regulatory flexibilities suggesting a possible trading mechanism - which has been discussed by commentators as a possible approach under EPA’s existing Clean Air Act authority. 

The US climate change policy story is not, however, one of simply promoting low emissions technologies for the sake of it, or enhancing the resilience of communities to the inevitable and entrenched impacts of climate change. Indeed, the President makes many references to acting in accordance with the national interest, for which economic performance and job creation are major considerations. The notion of preserving competitive trade advantages relative to emerging economies, particularly in the clean energy technology space, is also strongly presented in the speech.

At its core, the speech focuses predictably on the measures that underpin the Plan – including the sanctioning of actions through the issuance of a Presidential Memorandum in the face of a partisan Congress which is not likely to pass a legislative mandate anytime soon. But it’s also evident that the President felt it necessary to make a considered case for climate action by explaining the consequences of climate change – its impacts, its associated costs (including of inaction), and the need to act now in terms of emission reductions and adaptation so as to halt irreversible damage.

This suggests that the larger community still possibly needs convincing of the merits of climate action and the appropriation of public funds to support them – despite the President expressing very firm views that now is the time to safeguard future generations (a common and emotive theme reiterated many times). He justifies the need to act now on the basis of the prevailing body of scientific judgement. A central theme of the speech was that business-as-usual approaches will fail to preserve economic prosperity, jobs growth and protection of the environment.  The challenge is not one of either/or (i.e. economic growth/environmental protection); but rather both/and (i.e. also good for business as well as shareholder value).

The President also emphasised the importance of the US leading the climate change agenda including the international post-2020 agreement.  He noted that the climate agenda requires bipartisan political support and progress will be measured differently such as a ‘crisis averted’, ‘planet preserved’ while the benefits of action will likely be bestowed beyond the current generation that must bear the financial cost.

In encouraging low emission technology (LET), the President noted the important role of regulations (emissions performance standards) as well as the mobilisation of private sector know-how and capital – including transferring indigenously designed, manufactured and marketed LETS to developing countries. He emphasised a recommitment to the 17 per cent emissions reduction on 2005 levels by 2020 on the basis that emerging economies (including China, India and Brazil) need to also act alongside the US in mitigating their emissions; an imperative if the US is to protect and enhance its international trade competitiveness with these nations.

While CCS was mentioned in passing in the speech – but more comprehensively supported in the Plan – it might be inferred that despite the caveat on the sustained use and production of fossil fuels – and a wider acknowledgement that all fossil energy including natural gas will likely need CCS to be applied over the next decade if the international emissions reduction goals are to be met by 2050 – CCS seems a topic that is not easily raised nor understood  within a mainstream audience, and as such, brings its own set of challenges for CCS development and deployment.

CCS (in the absence of enhanced hydrocarbon recovery) suffers perhaps unfairly from a poor public persona – not only in the US but globally – and mostly due to its association with the debate, sentiments and perceptions over  continued fossil energy (primarily coal) use rather than anything to do with the integrity of its application and mitigation potential. And because of these perceptions, it also seems relatively easier to mount a policy case to support renewables and natural gas on the notion of industry development benefits of economic growth and job creation/job preservation. For CCS, however, such benefits seem to be ascribed asymmetrically by presuming that policy support can only be justified on an emissions management basis – a situation clearly exacerbated by the general lack of any incentive for emitters to manage their emissions.

The following table outlines the Plan and highlights aspects that appear most relevant to the CCS agenda.

CASE FOR ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE KEY MESSAGING The US has a moral obligation to future generations - climate change represents one of our greatest challenges of our time
Climate change is no longer a distant threat and we are already feeling its impacts across the country and the world - these changes come with far-reaching consequences and real economic costs
America stands at a critical juncture - need to keep America on the cutting edge
US is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 17 per cent below 2005 levels if all other major economies agreed to limit their emissions too
The Obama Administration has been working to strengthen America’s climate resilience since its earliest days
The climate change plan will create new jobs, build new industries - our scientists will design new fuels, and our farmers will grow them, our engineers to devise new sources of energy, our workers will build them, and our businesses will sell them
The US is more energy secure now than in the past - net oil imports fell to the lowest level in 20 years
The US has become the world’s leading producer of natural gas – the cleanest-burning fossil fuel
Cutting carbon pollution will help spark business innovation to modernize our power plants
President Obama believes that the federal government must be a leader in clean energy
A) Will put in place tough new rules to cut carbon pollution - and move our economy toward American-made clean energy sources that will create good jobs and lower home energy bills
B) Will prepare for the impacts of a changing climate that are already being felt across the country
C) Will couple action at home with leadership internationally
This is a blueprint for steady, responsible national and international action to slow the effects of climate change - in partnership with states, local communities, and the private sector – to continue on a path to meeting the President’s 2020 goal
DEPLOYING CLEAN ENERGY FOSSIL POWER A Presidential Memorandum has been issued directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work expeditiously to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants
This will drive American leadership in clean energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, nuclear, renewables, and clean coal technology
REDUCING METHANE EMISSIONS The EPA and the Departments of Agriculture, Department of Energy (DoE), Interior, Labour, and Transportation will develop a comprehensive, interagency methane strategy
The Obama Administration will work collaboratively with state governments, as well as the private sector, to reduce emissions across multiple sectors - from coal mines and landfills to agriculture and oil and gas development
CLEAN COAL The Obama Administration has promoted international cooperation on clean coal technologies - the US works with China, India, and other countries that currently rely heavily on coal for power generation to advance the development and deployment of clean coal technologies
The US leads the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, which engages 23 other countries and economies on carbon capture and sequestration technologies
The US will continue to use these bilateral and multilateral efforts to promote clean coal technologies
The President calls for an end to US support for public financing of new coal plants overseas, except for (a) the most efficient coal technology available in the world’s poorest countries in cases where no other economically feasible alternative exists, or (b) facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies - as part of this new commitment, the US will work actively to secure the agreement of other countries and the multilateral development banks to adopt similar policies as soon as possible
RENEWABLE ENERGY President Obama has set a goal to double renewable electricity generation by 2020
President set a goal to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewables on public lands by the end of the year and has directed the Department of the Interior to permit an additional 10 gigawatts by 2020
The Administration is also taking steps to encourage the development of hydroelectric power at existing dams
The Department of Defense has been directed to deploy 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military installations, including solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal, by 2025
Federal agencies are setting a new goal of reaching 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity across the federally subsidized housing stock by 2020
POWER GRID A Presidential Memorandum has been issued directing federal agencies to streamline the siting, permitting and review process for transmission projects across federal, state, and tribal governments
CLEAN ENERGY RD&D The President's Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Submission to Congress includes public funding for clean energy technology across all agencies increased by 30 per cent, to approximately $7.9 billion in 2014 - includes investment in a range of energy technologies, from advanced biofuels and emerging nuclear technologies – including small modular reactors – to clean coal
The DoE will issue a Federal Register Notice announcing a draft of a solicitation (closing Fall 2013) that would make up to $8 billion in (self-pay) loan guarantee authority available for a wide array of advanced fossil energy projects under its Section 1703 loan guarantee program - for innovative technologies that can cost-effectively meet financial and policy goals, including the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases
The Administration will conduct a Quadrennial Energy Review which will be led by the White House Domestic Policy Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy, supported by a Secretariat established at the DoE - the first-ever review will focus on infrastructure challenges, and will identify the threats, risks, and opportunities for US energy and climate security (enabling the federal government to implement a four-year planning horizon)
ENERGY SYSTEM RESILIENCE TO CLIMATE CHANGE The DoE will soon release an assessment of climate-change impacts on the energy sector, including power-plant disruptions due to drought and the disruption of fuel supplies during severe storms, as well as potential opportunities to make our energy infrastructure more resilient to these risks
LEAD INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS ENHANCING MULTILATERAL ENGAGEMENT The US previously launched the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), a high-level forum that brings together 17 countries that account for approximately 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, in order to support the international climate negotiations and spur cooperative action to combat climate change
The MEF launched the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) to catalyse the development and deployment of clean energy and efficiency solutions
The US will intensify bilateral climate cooperation with key major emerging economies, through initiatives like the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, the U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy, and the Strategic Energy Dialogue with Brazil
President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached an historic agreement at their first summit to work to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the consumption and production of HFCs completely by 2050
The US launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollution, which has grown to include more than 30 country partners and other key partners such as the World Bank and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
The US is also leading through the Global Methane Initiative, which works with 42 partner countries and an extensive network of over 1,100 private sector participants to reduce methane emissions
SUBSIDIES President Obama is calling for the elimination of US fossil fuel tax subsidies in his Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget
POST 2020 AGREEMENT The US will be seeking an agreement that is ambitious, inclusive and flexible
The post 2020 arrangement needs to be ambitious to meet the scale of the challenge facing us; it needs to be inclusive because there is no way to meet that challenge unless all countries step up and play their part; and it needs to be flexible because there are many differently situated parties with their own needs and imperatives, and those differences will have to be accommodated in smart, practical ways

The US continues to demonstrate policy leadership in support of CCS, both domestically as well as internationally through various important multilateral initiatives – especially the UNFCCC, CEM, CSLF and a push to provide public funding only to CCS ready power plants in developing countries except in "rare" instances where it may not be feasible in the very poor economies. The increase in clean energy RD&D spending and implementation of previously authorized loan guarantees, as well as encouraging lower emitting power plants through the issuance of a Presidential Memorandum to the EPA to finalise the emissions performance standard could be viewed as a welcome sign depending on whether the standard is workable.

What CCS development needs in the US, as with other countries demonstrating a high dependency on CCS to meet their low carbon goals, is comparable and complementary policy support to that of alternate large scale clean energy options. The concept of establishing a level playing field for these clean energy technologies is to be lauded. However,  it is clear that delivering CCS policy parity with renewables in the US would clearly justify CCS receiving additional support to the actions outlined in the Plan.

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