As Paris Approaches, Be Confident in the Clean Power Plan

The United States is playing a leadership role in the run-up to the Paris climate conference. The United States announced its own commitment—its “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC)—earlier this year: a 26-28 percent reduction in national emissions of climate-changing pollution (greenhouse gas emissions) by 2025, from 2005 levels. Domestic implementation of the U.S. INDC is founded primarily on standards and regulations issued under existing U.S. laws such as the Clean Air Act, the vehicle fuel economy law, and other energy efficiency laws. Key measures include carbon pollution standards for power plants, fuel economy and carbon pollution standards for automobiles and trucks, measures to replace HFCs, and standards to cut methane leakage.

Many international observers are keenly interested in whether they can count on the U.S. approach to implementing its INDC. The answer is “yes.” The United States has durable climate laws, and the Clean Power Plan and the other key U.S. climate actions stand on firm legal ground.

The U.S. has durable climate laws

Some observers may think that the United States has not adopted a climate law, but that is not true. The U.S. already has a climate law—the Clean Air Act—a very durable and successful law adopted by the Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon 45 years ago, in 1970. Nixon’s predecessor, President Lyndon Johnson, had alerted Congress to the dangers of CO2-driven climate change in 1965—50 years ago! Congress responded in the 1970 Clean Air Act by giving the Environmental Protection Agency authority to curb pollutants that can change the climate.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling in 2007 that the 1970 Clean Air Act gave the EPA the authority and responsibility to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court confirmed that authority in two other decisions in 2011 and 2014. It is quite unusual to have three Supreme Court decisions confirming the government’s power to curb carbon pollution in so short a span of years.

It is true that in 2009 and 2010 Congress considered, but did not pass, new legislation that would have amended the Clean Air Act to add further climate change authority. But the decision not to enact those amendments had no effect on the original Clean Air Act authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions granted to the EPA. That law remains fully valid.

The Clean Power Plan stands on firm ground

The centerpiece of the U.S. domestic climate program is the Clean Power Plan, issued by President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency on August 3rd. The Clean Power Plan is an EPA regulation issued under the Clean Air Act. Regulations adopted under the Clean Air Act have the force of law. The Clean Power Plan will put enforceable limits on power plants’ carbon pollution starting in 2022. Nationwide, it will cut power plants’ carbon pollution 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Many observers are trying to gauge the political and legal situation in the U.S. They should be confident that the Clean Power Plan will prevail over legal and political challenges. Here are the answers to key questions that international observers may have, and the reasons they should be confident in the U.S.’s implementation of its INDC:

Can Congress block the Clean Power Plan? Most—but not all—Republicans in the current Congress would like to pass legislation to block the Clean Power Plan and to repeal the Clean Air Act’s authority over climate-changing pollution. They do not have the votes, however, to change that law. It takes a 60 vote majority in the Senate to pass most forms of legislation, and the opponents of the Clean Air Act and Clean Power Plan do not have 60 votes. There are several kinds of legislation that require only 51 votes, but President Obama can be counted on to veto any such bill that compromises the Clean Air Act. It requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto. The Clean Power Plan’s opponents do not have that two-thirds super-majority in either the House or Senate. So Congress will not be able to block the Clean Power Plan.

Can states block the Clean Power Plan? Under the Clean Air Act, our state governments have the first opportunity to implement the Clean Power Plan by writing state regulations (called state plans) to put enforceable limits on the power plants within their borders. Many states—with governors of both parties—are working diligently to develop their state plans. A small handful of governors are threatening to refuse to do this, however. Under the law, a state is free to refuse to adopt a state plan, but that does not end the matter. If a state refuses, the Clean Air Act then requires the EPA to directly regulate the power plants in that state. One way or another, power plant carbon pollution will be regulated. Most power companies prefer to be regulated by the states rather than the EPA. So in the end, very few state political leaders will choose to leave regulation of the power plants in their state to the EPA.

Will the courts block the Clean Power Plan? In the American system, the Clean Power Plan’s opponents have the right to challenge it in the courts. The courts have thus far rebuffed all efforts to block the EPA from issuing these standards. The Clean Power Plan’s opponents have already lost eight straight court challenges to power plant carbon pollution standards.

Another court battle will start later this fall when the EPA rules are formally published in the Federal Register. They will file their cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, often called our second highest court. There will be a large number of challengers, and they will make a lot of noise. But as mentioned above, the U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the EPA’s Clean Air Act authority over climate-changing pollution three times between 2007 and 2014. The main legal challenges that we expect to see, and the reasons they are likely to fail, are addressed in an NRDC issue brief on what to expect in Clean Power Plan litigation. The EPA wins the vast majority of cases brought against its standards. The EPA is operating on solid ground here, and these challenges are not likely to succeed.

What happens after Obama? There is good reason to expect that the Clean Power Plan, and the other measures in the U.S. INDC, will prove to be durable after the end of the President’s term. Climate change is already a much more prominent issue in the 2016 campaign than in any prior election. The prospective Democratic presidential candidates all promise continuity, and even stronger action. It is true that most potential Republican candidates oppose the Clean Power Plan—in fact, most of them still deny that climate change is real or merits any action. But this is one of many issues where the Republican candidates are playing to a small slice of the electorate, and where they are badly out of step with the majority. Only a minority of the American public doubts or denies climate science. The majority of Americans strongly favor climate action: 60-70 percent of the public backs the Clean Power Plan in public opinion polls. Eight million people—a record number—wrote letters or emails to the EPA in support of power plant carbon pollution standards. Climate is an issue of ever-growing importance to the growing segments of our voting population—especially young people, Latinos, and African Americans.

For all these reasons, the U.S. has a durable legal structure for carrying out its Paris commitments, and there’s good reason to expect continuity and deeper commitments from the United States after 2016.

David Doniger is a Senior Advisor to the NRDC Action Fund.

Emphasizing Need to Combat Climate Change, Clinton Opposes Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton added her voice  to the opposition to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline noting that it is not in the interests of fighting climate change. This doesn’t come as a surprise given the American public’s focus on climate action. Tar sands crude is about as dirty as it gets when it comes to climate change. Keystone XL would take us in the wrong direction. We need to power our future with clean energy, not lock future generations into the dirty fuels of the past. The stakes for the country demand an approach just as assertive on climate change from any candidate, from either party, who aspires to the highest office in the land.

It is worth reminding ourselves just why the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline does not make climate sense. This project would pipe tar sands crude from under the Canadian boreal forests and wetlands to the Gulf Coast where most of it would be exported as diesel to overseas markets. That means putting American farmlands and waters at risk so that the oil industry can access overseas markets for the currently mostly land-locked tar sands.

Tar sands is not your grandfather’s oil. It is strip-mined and melted from deep under Canada’s boreal forest in a process that guzzles energy and water, generating high levels of climate-destroying pollution and devastating miles of wilderness. Dirty fuels such as tar sands have no place in a future of climate action and clean energy.

Keystone XL would drive expansion of tar sands mining and drilling by providing access to new markets overseas. Instead, without Keystone XL, we have seen tar sands projects being postponed and cancelled citing lack of adequate infrastructure. It is no coincidence that the public opposition to Keystone XL has been echoed in opposition to other proposed coastal access pipelines, none of which seem likely to go through.

Because so much of the capital investment in tar sands extraction is up front, once the mines and other facilities are built, they tend to keep producing even as oil prices have sunk to their current low levels. That is another reason why building infrastructure that facilitates expansion of tar sands ends up locking us in to years of dirty fuels production.

Keystone XL fails President Obama’s climate test. Analysis by both the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency show that Keystone XL would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.

It is no accident that Clinton has moved from her “inclined to support” comment while Secretary of State to clear opposition of Keystone XL. As American voices for climate action and clean energy have strengthened, so has opposition to senseless dirty energy projects likes tar sands pipelines.

In fact, scientists across North America have called for a moratorium on tar sands expansion and related infrastructure because of its impact on climate change and the environment. These scientists note that addressing climate change will require leaving 75 percent of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground, starting with those that produce the most carbon pollution, like tar sands oil. The choices that Canada and the United States make about tar sands in the coming months and years will reverberate globally, as other nations face the inconsistency of trying to have both climate action and expansion of dirty fuels. Yet Canada has continued on its path of being a climate laggard, recently even labelled as the worst in the industrialized world on climate action by a United Nations panel.

The decision to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline once and for all rests with the Administration. President Obama has made it clear that Keystone XL would be all risk and no reward for the American people. Now it’s time for him to reject the tar sands pipeline for good.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is a Senior Advisor to the NRDC Action Fund.

What Would Carly Fiorina Have Said If Asked About Climate Change During The Debate?


Photo Credit: flickr, with Creative Commons license 

The new face at Wednesday’s night second Republican presidential debate was Carly Fiorina. Fiorina stands out from the crowded field of candidates because she is a woman and the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She was also the only one who could “take on Donald Trump” and she “distinguished herself on the debate stage,” according to two talking heads.

But Fiorina wasn’t ever asked a question about climate change during the debate. (That’s because the topic was given approximately 30 seconds out of a three hour debate, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) Given her recent statements and speeches on the issue, here is what we know she thinks about climate change:

In August, at the Iowa State Fair, Fiorina said: “[A]ll the people who tell us that we can’t do this, we can’t drill, we can’t keep the coal industry going. They all cite the science of climate change. Let me tell you what the scientists say. If you want to quote science you gotta read the fine print. All the scientists that tell us that climate change is real and man made also tell us this: A single nation acting alone will make no difference at all.” [emphasis mine]

This last point is one that she repeats just about every time she’s asked about climate change. While it’s nice to see the Republican presidential candidates varying their reasons for opposing action on climate change, this is another rationalization that doesn’t hold water.

It’s wrong on several counts.  First, it jumps from stating the obvious—no one country alone can fight climate change—to the absurd—therefore, it doesn’t make sense for any country to do anything about climate change.  Talk about a defeatist attitude.

Second, it wishes away the impact of U.S. action.  The United States is the second largest emitter of climate pollution in the world and the largest per person.  The flip side of what Fiorina says is that no plan to combat climate change will matter unless it includes the United States.  And no plan is likely to ever come together or take effect unless it includes U.S. leadership. (Don’t Republicans claim they want the United States to be a leader?)

Third, Fiorina implicitly assumes that other countries aren’t acting on climate.  This isn’t true, and the pace has picked up thanks to the Obama Administration demonstrating that the U.S. will act.  Here are some recent developments:

  • China issued a continued carbon intensity reduction target reaching 60-65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • South Korea will cut its emissions to 37 percent below business as usual by 2030.
  • Brazil is pushing for 28 percent to 33 percent of its energy matrix to come from renewable sources (electricity and biofuels) by 2030.
  • Morocco: committed to reduce emissions between 13 percent (unconditionally) and 32 percent (conditional based on access to finance and support).
  • Japan, Australia, and Canada have made pledges that are too weak or that they are not on track for and they are facing pressure to strengthen them. (Natural Resources Defense Council’s Jake Schmidt has more on this here.)
  • India is expected to make a climate pledge next month.

Nobody is suggesting the United States to act alone. That’s a red herring. But we are asking the United States to embrace its role as a global leader and to be part of a global solution to the climate crisis.

Here’s what Fiorina went on to say:

“We can destroy all these jobs in this nation, we can destroy industries in this nation at the altar of science. But here’s the truth ladies and gentlemen, those livelihoods and lives are being destroyed not at the altar of science but at the altar of ideology. This is about ideology. It is not about science.” [emphasis mine]

Again, this statement looks more and more ridiculous the more you read it.  It combines two false premises.  First, it distorts science by claiming that the science says there’s no reason for the U.S. to act.  Second, it distorts economics by assuming that climate action is a job killer.

One study by NRDC found that a strong carbon pollution standard could create 274,000 energy efficiency-related jobs. There is also a huge potential for clean energy jobs in wind and solar industries. Wind energy already accounts for 73,000 jobs, which will only grow with the Clean Power Plan. There will also be an increase in jobs like electricians, construction managers, installers, inspectors, and technicians. All of these are good-paying jobs that can’t be sent overseas.

Fiorina’s other popular “answer” to the climate crisis is that America needs to innovate instead of regulate our way out of the problem. As is pointed out here, no one is saying we don’t need to innovate. But innovation alone – especially innovation with no regulation – will not be enough and cannot be considered a serious climate policy.

It’s nice that Fiorina wants to portray herself as someone in line with the science of climate change.  It would be even better if she actually were.  Right now, she’s just come up with an even more contorted excuse not to act than her fellow Republican candidates have.

NRDC Action Fund’s Ad Campaign Tells Sen. Toomey: Support the Clean Power Plan

Toomey AF digital ad

This week, the NRDC Action Fund is launching a nearly $1 million ad campaign in Pennsylvania urging Senator Pat Toomey to take a bold step on climate change by backing the Clean Power Plan.

Why focus on Sen. Toomey? He has voted to block climate action at every turn, including voting against the Clean Power Plan—America’s historic effort to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Pennsylvanians deserve a senator who will stand up for their health, not push the big polluter agenda.  Our TV ad calls out Sen. Toomey on this vital issue. Climate change is serious in Pennsylvania – communities across Pennsylvania got hit with five heat waves this summer. The state was also soaked with nearly twice the average amount of rain in June. Hot, rainy summers are part of life in the Keystone State, but climate change is making them worse. According to a new report from Penn State, Pennsylvania will experience more destructive storms and be over 5 degrees warmer within 35 years. Experts say that means more smog, asthma attacks, property damage and bankrupt ski resorts.

Pennsylvanians know we need to tackle climate change. Seventy-two percent of Pennsylvania voters, for instance, support the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to limit climate change pollution from power plants, according to a survey from Hart Research Associates. Even in western coal-producing regions, 63 percent say the EPA should limit this dangerous pollution. And a large majority of Pennsylvania Republicans—58 percent—feels the same.

Unfortunately, so far, instead of representing his constituents’ interests, Sen. Toomey has been taking the side of dirty industries. Sen. Toomey has taken more than $1 million from polluters, and now he wants to let them keep pumping unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air.

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According to the League of Conservation Voter’s analysis, in 2013 Sen. Toomey opposed every single piece of environmental legislation that LCV tracked except one. This includes votes against limits on toxic air pollution from power plants, disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy, Department of Defense investments in biofuels, and safeguards against climate change. He signed on to Senator Mitch McConnell’s 2014 letter urging President Obama to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. And earlier this year, he joined 98 other senators in acknowledging that climate change is not a hoax and that humans play a role in the crisis, but he opposed an amendment stating that humans “significantly” contribute to climate change.

Meanwhile, he has failed to provide or support a single proposal for how the nation can defuse the climate threat.

Solutions exist. America has the clean energy resources we need to slash carbon pollution and shield future generations from the destructive power of climate change. The Clean Power Plan will unleash many of those solutions, and in the process, it will prevent 90,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths a year and generate enormous energy and cost savings.

Pennsylvania will reap these benefits. The state is already home to 4,200 clean energy companies—companies have created 57,000 jobs in the state. The wind industry has invested more than $2.7 billion in the state, and the solar sector attracted more than $114 million to Pennsylvania in 2013 alone.  The Clean Power Plan will expand these opportunities. According to an NRDC analysis, Pennsylvania could see the creation of 5,100 new jobs and the state’s households and businesses will save $465 million on their electric bills in 2020 if the state takes a bold approach to reducing carbon pollution.

Yet instead of fostering these benefits, Sen. Toomey is aligning himself with dirty energy donors. It’s time for him to change course and stand with the people of Pennsylvania. It’s time for Sen. Toomey to support the Clean Power Plan—and the good jobs, clean air, and reduced climate risk it will deliver.

Pete Altman is the Climate Campaign Director for the NRDC Action Fund.

Six Lessons Learned about the Politics of Climate Change

Over the past few weeks, every Democratic candidate running for president has discussed climate change in a major speech and made climate solutions a central part of their platform. Republican candidates continue to use stock phrases like “I’m not a scientist,” but at least they are talking about climate change.

We’ve come a long way.

When I started working at the NRDC Action Fund in 2004, climate change barely registered on the political landscape. I was coming off of Capitol Hill and most of my time was spent on parks and water issues, which we were just starting to think of in terms of climate change.  Most voters were concerned about the war in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, and the latest episode of Desperate Housewives—it was before streaming, after all. Global warming, as we called it then, was the focus of policy wonks and researchers and few others.

Then something shifted: climate change started hitting home in painful and costly ways. Nine out of the 10 hottest years ever occurred since 2002. We witnessed the destructive power of storms like Katrina and Sandy and became accustomed to using the words “record-breaking” when we talk about everything from snowfalls to wildfires. People’s lives were turned upside down by climate impacts, and Americans began calling on leaders to do something about it.

Now that I have decided to leave the NRDC Action Fund to return to my roots to head up the Ohio Environmental Council and its Action Fund, I can’t help but reflect on the progress made by my amazing NRDC colleagues and the larger environmental movement.

Not only have we helped secure policies to limit carbon pollution from power plants and cut climate change pollution from new cars in half by 2025—saving drivers $80 billion a year at the pump, but we have also helped put climate change on the campaign map. Candidates hoping to win the White House, the governor’s mansion, or a Congressional seat in 2016 must discuss the climate threat.

It’s been an honor to be a small part of this transformation. It’s also been an incredible learning experience. It turns out, for instance, that PowerPoint Presentations can win Oscars, but voters still don’t want to hear about carbon wedges. And Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) can throw all the snowballs he wants on the Senate floor, but he can’t fool the majority of Americans into denying climate change.

Local Climate Stories Move Voters: When Gary Peters ran for Senate from Michigan, he didn’t talk about worldwide CO2 emissions or sea-level rise. He described how climate change was hurting the Great Lakes and other beloved people and places in Michigan. And he celebrated the 80,000 green goods and services jobs in the state. He also took on the Koch brothers, who were responsible for polluting waterways in the state and funding the opposition.  He won, and he confirmed the power of connecting the dots between global climate change, the fossil fuel cronies, and voters’ daily lives.

Running Clean Works: NRDC Action Fund research has confirmed that candidates who campaign on clean energy and climate action from the beginning win—including Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in 2012 to Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in 2014. Clean energy provides a positive, solutions-based narrative to talk about issues that matter most to Americans: jobs, the economy, and the health of their families.

Big Money Is Here to Stay: Political time can be measured in two epochs: before the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling spilled millions of unregulated dollars into political campaigns, and after. It’s a fact of life now that spending has reached staggering heights. Fossil fuel industry spent more than $721 million in the 2014 election cycle alone. But the last presidential election proved that even that much money can’t buy you love. Despite the Koch brothers’ best efforts, clean energy and climate champions won up and down the ticket.

The Fight Is Spreading to the States in an even Bigger Way: Now that the Clean Power Plan has established limits on carbon pollution from power plants, each state can figure out how it will achieve its reductions. This is a huge opportunity to create new jobs and save people money on energy bills. But it is also a chance for naysayers to try to delay and interfere at the state level. That’s one reason I am joining the Ohio Environmental Council: I want to help set the bar high for climate action and clean energy growth in the Midwest.

Time to Paint Climate Stonewalling as Extremism: Republicans in Congress are trying to block the Clean Power Plan, and every GOP presidential candidate has decried it. Yet not a single one has offered a plan for tackling what is the biggest environmental and public health threat of our time. Poll after poll after poll confirms the vast majority of Americans want leaders to address climate change. It’s time to point out the GOP’s failure for what it is: out-of-step extremism.

It Will be Tough for a Climate Denier to Win the White House: Extensive polling from red and blue and purple states reveals that climate change matters to the majority of voters. And it really matters to three voting blocs that will be key to winning in 2016: women, Latinos, and young people. Voters want a leader in the White House who will confront the big challenges, not ignore their existence.

This Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Creating major political change requires stamina. The average bill becoming a law takes eight years to get passed, and most bills die well before that. A complex challenge like climate change will demand many bills, policies and technological innovations, but we will keep running until we cross the finish line. I do it because of my faith and because I want to leave the planet in better shape for my children. They deserve it. Our communities and beautiful wild places deserve it. And even our opponents deserve it.

See you in Ohio.