President Obama's decision to implement regulations requiring a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 from existing power plants is a truly big deal. Perhaps just as notable is how it came about - not through activist campaigns with thousands of people chaining themselves to the White House gates, but through insider lobbying of the most old-school sort.
The subject was always seen as too wonky and boring. In many ways, the campaigns against the Keystone XL and fracking constituted a rebellion against the very idea of lobbying for power plant regulations. The former: exciting and dramatic, guaranteed to drive volunteer recruitment, media attention and fundraising. The latter: not so much.
But power plant regs are exponentially more important. To understand why, consider that total annual U.S. emissions of CO2 were 5.5 billion tons annually in 2011, according to EPA data. Then guess which emissions-control fight got the most attention from environmental activists and the media (data from EPA):
- Power plant emissions rules (2014): cut 500 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030.
- Passenger vehicle fuel-economy standards (2012): cut 180 million tons of CO2 annually by 2020, rising to 580 million tons by 2030.
- Truck fuel-economy standards (2011): cut 76 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2020.
- Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline (2015?): prevent the addition of anywhere from zero to 150 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2020.***
Of course, vastly more attention and activist resources have been dedicated to the Keystone XL fight, despite the fact that its environmental impact is considerably less than the other three rule-making fights. The question remains: Does the KXL mobilization create a grass-roots force that can be utilized for other environmental goals, such as power plant regulations, as argued last year by David Roberts in Grist? Or is it a rabbit hole that diverts resources and attention, as suggested in a Bloomberg article last week?
We will soon find out. Unfortunately, some of that activist muscle will be needed to help make the new power plant regulations stick. Environmental groups need to come to the barricades for two reasons:
Politics. While the rules are imposed by administrative fiat under existing EPA authority, the Republicans are guaranteed to use the issue to attack vulnerable Democrats in this year's elections. If the rules are seen as a political negative, it could drag Democrats such as North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Kentucky's Alison Grimes down to defeat, perhaps tipping the balance to GOP control of the Senate. And because the rules will force the states to devise their own strategies on how to meet the new emissions goals, local political fights will emerge all around the nation.
Lawsuits. The rules are considered vulnerable to legal challenge, as described in this consultant's report. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals leans heavily to the political right, so a decision there to overthrow the new rules is not unlikely. As for the U.S. Supreme Court, the outlook is just as dangerous - and as we saw with Chief Justice John Roberts' tactical decision to support Obama's health care law, he reads the polls carefully. Which means that the power plant emissions rules could eventually get bounced back to Congress. One way or another, this may be decided politically, not administratively.
So who's got Obama's back? With the exception of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, which played a crucial role in the insider policy-crunching that led to the new EPA rules, and the Sierra Club, whose Beyond Coal campaign was funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, it's unclear which if any of the activist green groups are planning to spend much energy defending Obama from the coming onslaught. While most have given pro forma support to the issue, few have given it real attention. How it's framed now -- as a net political positive or negative, as one that the American people care about or don't -- could have lasting impact on U.S. carbon emissions for many years to come.
*** Footnote - there is considerable debate over how much net additional carbon emissions would be created by the Keystone XL. Brad Johnson recently summed up many KXL opponents' position by writing on the HillHeat blog that the correct figure is 150 million metric tons annually, which is EPA's estimate of the total emissions from oil conveyed by the pipeline, rather than 18.7 million metric tons, which is EPA's estimate of the net additional carbon from extra-heavy tar sands oil compared with other, less-heavy grades of oil. But the former presumes that the tar sands oil would not get out to market without the KXL, while the latter only comprises U.S. domestic emissions rather than global emissions. As I have discussed on this site and in The National Interest, Canada is planning a half-dozen major pipelines in addition to KXL, and rail volume from the tar sands is rising rapidly. Blocking KXL is likely to slow the increase of tar sands exports but is unlikely to stop it. So the net addition of carbon emissions from KXL might - or might not - be as low as zero, at least in the long term. Anyone who claims to know for certain the amount of KXL's net annual emissions is blowing smoke.