Post-Vacation Catch-Up: Obama’s Other Climate Shoe Falls, New Normal Becoming Normal

by Bill Chameides | July 3rd, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Nebraska National Guard crewmembers of Company C 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Battalion douse the flames of Colorado’s High Park fire with a Bambi bucket last June. That fire was a focus of a fact-finding trip to Colorado I led before my vacation. Wildfires continue to dominate the news even in a season that is
“below average.” (Flickr/Staff Sgt. Tate Petersen, Company C/The National Guard)

Obama calls for greenhouse gas cuts while weather woes persist.

Just got back from two glorious weeks of vacation with family on the Maine coast. Now, you should know I take vacations very seriously. I place a very high bar on what it means to get away — it means total disconnection: I turn off the phone, leave the computer behind, eschew WiFi, television, radio, newspapers. It is without question an idyllic existence, but, as you may imagine, there is an enormous price to pay upon return: an overflowing inbox, of course, as well as 14 days of news to catch up on.

New Greenhouse Gas Regulations on the Way?

While we academics enjoy both a summertime lull as well as some R&R downtime, it’s not like the world comes to a screeching halt just because the days are longer. Time and the news march on, and, as it turns out, one big item in the world of environmental news broke during my annual retreat. President Obama announced a new round of executive actions to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the absurdity of any substantive climate action coming out of Congress, Obama is proposing to make good on his State of the Union pledge to act on his own using the authority the administration has to regulate greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act (authority resulting from a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions are a pollutant and so must, under the Clean Air Act, if the Environmental Protection Agency found them to “endanger public health or welfare” — which it did — be regulated.)

Among the items Obama identified for action was promulgation of new rules that would regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants.

Earlier, the administration had proposed rules [pdf] to regulate emissions from new power plants, rules that would essentially rule out construction of new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage. Actually, this regulation was not seen as being all that groundbreaking since, given the low cost of natural gas, most new plants are projected to be powered by natural gas anyway. But even so, those rules hit a roadblock when EPA decided to forego its April 13th deadline for finalizing them and declined to provide an alternative date for their being finalized. For the moment those regulations hang in regulation-world suspension, like so many others.

Rules on new power plants notwithstanding, it has long been recognized that the big kuhuna of carbon regulations for the electric power sector is existing coal-fired power plants. In the United States, by last count, they produce 318 gigawatts of electricity annually, and account for 39.9 percent of the country’s electricity and almost 80 percent of the carbon emissions from the electricity sector. For the environmental community, Obama’s green cred will always be suspect if he doesn’t go after existing plant emissions. On the other side, regulating existing plant emissions is likely to be seen by many in the coal industry as Obama’s crossing a Rubicon in his so-called war on coal.

Does Obama’s decision to regulate existing plant emissions now firmly place him in the environmental camp? I think we should withhold judgment until we see his decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. And here’s an interesting question to ponder. Suppose the president goes forward with the regulations while approving the pipeline: who got the bone and who got the filet mignon?

Can You Make New Regs Without an Administrator?

Of course, there is a potential fly in the ointment in any plan to use the regulatory power of EPA that must have some in the White House fretting just a bit. It will be kind of difficult to move complicated carbon emissions regulations forward in an agency without an administrator. Last I checked, the confirmation of Obama’s nominee for the post, Gina McCarthy, remains stalled in the Senate. Depending upon which pundit you subscribe to, the confirmation is either imminent or hopelessly mired in partisan in-fighting. Who knows the real deal.

One sticking point for some Republicans is McCarthy’s statement in her April testimony that

“The agency is not currently developing any existing source greenhouse gas regulations for power plants.” (Video of hearing.)

Last week, Senator John Barasso (R-WY) said this on the floor of the Senate:

“She has recently reported to the Senate that the things the president is talking about today are things she has known nothing about. So either she was ignorant about what’s going on at EPA, a place where she’s been an assistant director for the last four years, or she is arrogant. Either way, I think this tarnishes her chances of being approved by the Senate, tarnishes her nomination.”

I am not nearly as troubled as Barasso on this — it’s the difference between thinking about or planning for and developing. That might sound like splitting hairs, but come on, we’re talking Congress.

New Normal

Just before I left for vacation I had spent a week in Colorado on a fact-finding trip to learn about wildfires in the West — the whys, the hows, and the what do people living in the wildland-urban interface — places where human development abuts wildlife — do when fire strikes. Our focus for the trip was the 2012 High Park fire, but during our travels the Black Forest fire broke out and we were all saddened to learn that it proved to be the most destructive fire in Colorado history. I left for my vacation with the headlines dominated by that story.

It was quite a shock to be confronted as I emerged from vacation two weeks later by even more gruesome headlines about wildfires, including this one in Arizona that tragically took the lives of 19 firefighters.

It would appear that for the folks living in the Southwest, huge, destructive wildfires are becoming a fact of life. People in that part of the world who choose to live in the wildland-urban interface can have no doubt that they are putting themselves in harm’s way. Why do they do it? I got some insight into the question when I spoke to folks who lost their homes in the High Park fire in Colorado. There’s also an interesting op-ed on the subject in Monday’s New York Times.

Meanwhile, as we mourn the dead in Arizona, here’s a shout-out to some others being impacted by the new normal: the folks whose homes were flooded out in Pennsylvania and New York when the Mohawk and Susquehanna Rivers overflowed their banks. And let us not forget the brave and crazy folks who live in Death Valley where temperatures on June 30th hit a potential record of 129 degrees Fahrenheit (the record awaits validation). By comparison, folks in Las Vegas have been sweating it out in the relative cool of 115-117 degrees.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned to North Carolina to learn that our little patch of paradise, which had been suffering from drought conditions around the time I left [pdf], has been under a deluge of rain for days.(See here and here.) The silver lining in that soggy cloud: North Carolina is “drought-free for the first time in 3 years.”

The final news shock for me upon my return to civilization came when I learned that the 17-year cicada reunion has apparently come and gone, and I missed the party. I don’t believe I saw a single one of those guys. I can’t understand what happened. I had already picked out my party clothes and had them laid out and ready to go. You think the invitation got lost in the mail?

filed under: climate change, coal, drought, energy, faculty, fossil fuels, global warming, natural gas, policy, politics, pollution, rainfall, temperatures, weather, wildlands, wildlife
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