Opinion

Beyond Power Plant Regulation:  The Obama Administration’s Broad Approach To Addressing Climate Change 

Over the last several months, much attention — both positive and negative– has been focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposals to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from new and existing power plants.  Most recently, EPA extended the comment period on the existing plant rule until December 1, 2014, but that did little to stem the enormous controversy surrounding the proposal.  Less attention has been given to the Obama Administration’s quiet but deliberate approach to address climate change and its impacts more comprehensively.

Some of these efforts may result in future regulation, while others will be implemented voluntarily by the private and public sectors.  Together they represent a wide-ranging approach not only to reducing GHG emissions but also preparing for and responding to climate impacts.

Below is a short summary of some recent actions taken since EPA released the proposed rule on existing plants.

 — Presidential Actions and Commitments: President Obama spoke on September 23, 2014 at the first climate summit to be held at the United Nations, highlighting recent actions and proposals by his administration to reduce GHG emissions and reaffirming his commitment to addressing climate change at the domestic and international levels. The President called on other leading emitting nations to show the same commitment, and he further announced policies to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries.  Looking back to a prior pledge to reduce GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, the President said the U.S. would announce a target for a new international agreement within a year and urged other countries to do the same.

— Also in September, the President released an executive order directing all federal agencies to factor climate change resilience into their international development programs and investments by evaluating climate-based risks and vulnerabilities in their strategies, plans and programs.

— In early October, the White House released the Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda, a plan to protect federal lands and forests from the impacts of climate change, including forest fires, invasive species and changing weather patterns, and to preserve the ability of these lands to sequester carbon. Joining efforts by federal agencies, tribes and the private sector, the plan seeks to develop practices and tools to aid in the management of federal lands and natural resources as well as to assist in community planning, preparedness and resiliency efforts.

— In July, President Obama announced a series of programs aimed at improving the government’s response to climate change as part of his focus on replacing aging infrastructure. Among the initiatives were grants to provide climate mitigation training to Native American tribes, a program to preserve drinking water supplies during droughts, and the upgrading of rural electrification grids to make them more efficient.

— Also in July, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report which estimated that each decade of delayed action to address climate change targets would increase the costs of meeting those targets by 40 percent. The report also estimated that failing to meet global climate targets would reduce global economic output by .9 percent per year for each degree increase over the global temperature targeted cap of 2 degrees Celsius.

— In a related development, in June, EPA released an updated policy on climate change adaptation, its first since 2011. The statement found new and stronger evidence that climate change is affecting people throughout the U.S. and set forth directives to improve adaptation in its policies and actions.

— Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS): EPA has issued its first permits for carbon capture and storage projects under the Safe Drinking Water Act’s underground injection control program.  These “Class VI” wells authorize permits for long-term storage of CO2, conditioned upon extensive monitoring and proof of financial responsibility requirements.  The approval of these permits and potential construction of CCS technology should help EPA in its proposed rule requiring CCS technology for new coal-fired plants.

— HFCs: In September, the White House announced a joint program with producers of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), refrigerants which were designed as substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals but have significant climate change impacts.  The White House issued an executive order reducing the use of HFCs by federal agencies and committed to funding research and development of alternatives.  Industry committed to invest $5 billion to develop new refrigerant technologies and to increase efficiencies.   Several large producers also committed to reducing the use of HFCs and developing alternatives.  The U.S. has tried for several years to seek international agreement to phase out HFCs.  EPA even more recently issued a final rule phasing out domestic production by 2020 of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are both ozone depleters and potent GHGs.  An international agreement already regulates these chemicals, which HFCs had replaced in many uses.

— GHG Reductions from Aviation: As part of international discussions over GHG regulation of the aviation industry, EPA recently released a regulatory roadmap for eventually setting domestic GHG emission standards for aircraft.  In response to a petition to regulate GHGs from the sector filed by environmental groups, EPA committed to consider whether aircraft GHG emissions endanger public health or welfare, a prelude to potential regulation under the Clean Air Act.  EPA announced it would release such an “endangerment finding” proposal by late April 2015, and finalize it a year later.

— Methane Emissions From Oil and Gas Sectors: EPA continues to consider whether to implement voluntary measures or issue regulations (or both) to address methane releases from oil and gas production.  Methane is a valuable fuel product, an explosive hazard and a powerful GHG.  Last Spring, EPA issued a series of white papers on methane emissions from compressors, hydraulically fractured oil wells, liquids unloading, leaks and pneumatic devices.  These white papers will likely serve as a basis for an agency determination as to whether to set regulations addressing methane emissions from these sources in the oil and gas sector.  EPA plans to complete its strategy by the Fall 2014, but there is no specific deadline for it to do so.  EPA already regulates methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

James Rubin is counsel Dentons’ Environment and Natural Resources practice.  He served for 15 years in the Environment & Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was an assistant chief in the Law & Policy Section, a trial attorney in the Environmental Defense Section and an agency representative to the White House Climate Change Task Force.

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