President Obama is trying to force through legislation, which will limit carbon pollution from existing US coal power plants by 30%, over 2005 levels by 2030. There is massive opposition. What are his chances?
Although the US has been making progress with cutting carbon emissions, progress has been slow. The US did not ratify the Kyota Climate Change agreement in 1998, and pulled out completely in 2011, much to the chagrin of the EU and other Kyota agreement signatories. All this may about to change with the appearance of new legislation, which will force coal power stations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. The international repercussions of this could be significant.
With congressional elections coming up in November, this piece of legislation could prove to be extremely important not just for climate change but for American politics in general. Host of Radio VR’s Eco Plus, John Harrison, talks to Ethan Zindler who is head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). Mr. Zindler oversees Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance in the Americas.
How likely is it that this legislation will pass onto the statute books?
Ethan Zindler: It looks quite likely, but the way that this works is essentially the EPA is taking the existing law, having to do with clean air that was established 40 years ago, and say – hey, that law, that is already on the books, applies to CO2 emission. And they’ve written a regulation around that, which they are going to implement over the next 10 years or so. So, it is really based on an existing law.
What could stop it from being implemented, would be if Congress passes a new law that essentially says that interpreting that old law in this way is not legal. The other thing that could stop it would be if the opponents of the plan go to a US court and say – hey, you can’t interpret that old law in this kind of way, it is going beyond the bounds of what that original law was written for, and this is not legal under the US system.
Will Obama use his executive powers to bypass Congress?
Ethan Zindler: Effectively, what Obama is doing through this, is bypassing Congress. He is interpreting an existing law that was written, again, 40 years ago and signed into law by President Nixon back in the 1970’es, and saying – hey, that law applies today to this problem of CO2 emission.
So, in a way, Congress doesn’t have to ratify a law that already exists?
Ethan Zindler: Exactly! He is taking what is called the Clean Air Act of the 1970’es and saying – hey, when Congress passed that back in the 70’es, what they meant by clean air, also meant addressing issues like the CO2. So, if Congress does nothing, this regulation will be implemented. Congress will have to proactively pass some new law, if they want to block Obama from implementing this.
Is that possible?
Ethan Zindler: Absolutely! It is definitely possible and the Republicans have already made a number of efforts to do this. The elections are being held this fall and it looks like the Republicans may win back control of the Senate. And they control the House right now, but not the Senate. If they win back control of the Senate, they may redouble their efforts next year to try to block Obama from implementing this.
But one last thing to be aware of is that the President of the US can veto any legislation that Congress passes. And the only way to override such a veto is if you pass that legislation with more than two thirds of the votes in Congress. And given that Democrats still represent a sizeable minority in the House of Representatives, and even if they become marginalized in the Senate, they will still be a large minority in the Senate. The chances that Congress can override a presidential veto on this are not high.
The President has actually made dealing with climate change one of the top things in his second term. The problem has been that Congress is entirely uncooperative with him on anything that he wants to get done, and not just having to do with climate change.
As you pointed out, the use of this issue on the campaign trail, you are absolutely right, this is the common issue out there in the hinterlands in various campaigns. But it should be made clear that it is not always clearly a democrat versus a republican. For instance, both candidates who are running for Senate in west Virginia, which is a state where the coal industry is very-very important, both candidates – a democrat and a republican – are very critical of this new EPA power plant.
What will the effect be internationally if this is passed?
Ethan Zindler: The first thing to keep in mind is that the US is already reducing its emission. And so, when the rush shows up at these international talks, they can point to that and say – look, we are making progress. The US has tightened its regulations on automobiles, which has considerably improved the efficiency of a car fleet over there. And simply by market dynamics, we’ve seen a lot of old coal being replaced by newer lower carbon gas. So, that dynamic is already taking place.
The other thing to take not of is that the Chinese, who we conventionally view as the enormous emitters, and they are, but the Chinese have also been moving very rapidly on their own to put in place new policies to require more renewable energy. In fact, China was the largest market solar photovoltaic by far, 2013.
Now, the administration, the US State department can show up at these talks and say – look, here we’ve put the regulation out, we plan to cut our emissions by 30 percent by 2030. You, China, make a similar kind of commitment and we can sign a deal.
Now, whether or not that all can pass, I think they have my doubt. But I do think that this does give the US another talking point, for sure.