The Efficient Planet

What Obama Can Accomplish Without Congress

A dozen ways to fight climate change right now.

 Shipping container trucks sit in traffic in Long Beach, Calif. President Obama could work to improve fuel-efficiency in delivery trucks and 18-wheelers.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

With President Obama’s re-election, environmentalists were re-energized. In his first term, the president disappointed just about everyone in the movement with (among other things) his lackluster support for the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009. Senate Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority at the time, so only a few senators from the party’s conservative Blue Dog caucus or those representing fossil fuel-rich states would have needed some LBJ-style arm-twisting (or Clinton-style quid-pro-quos) to get the bill through. The Senate version of the bill never even came up for a vote, and the Democrats have since lost their numerical advantage. Legislative action on reducing carbon emissions, therefore, is widely viewed as having a polar bear’s chance in Phoenix.

Nonetheless, policy analysts say, there’s much a president can do on his or her own to bring down the U.S. contribution to greenhouse gases. The executive branch is, of course, tasked with enforcing laws and regulations already on the books, creating new regulations, and updating old ones. It has the power, technically, to exercise authority over every major source of greenhouse gases, from power plants (34 percent of U.S. emissions) to adipic-acid manufacturing (less than half a percent). Here’s a rundown. 

Producing electricity is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As natural gas’s cost has fallen due to the fracking boom, it has replaced coal at many power plants. But coal is still the source of one-third of our electricity, and it contributes the majority of emissions from power plants.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate CO2 emissions, making the agency the lever by which the second Obama administration can force the greatest reduction in greenhouse gases. The traditional approach would be to require individual power plants to limit CO2 emissions—much as the agency has done to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, that come from burning coal. Carbon “scrubbers,” though, are expensive, and requiring them would likely face legal challenges.

“The opportunity to get much bigger reductions in a cost-effective way,” says Dan Lashof, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is to take a system-wide approach.” That would involve designing standards that push energy efficiency on users. Consumers using less electricity could reduce the number of kilowatt-hours produced by coal plants by more than the 5 percent or so that Lashof estimates would be feasible from scrubbers and the like.

Obama’s Department of Energy could also bring down emissions from power plants; it has the job of setting efficiency requirements on appliances and equipment. And EPA could squeeze coal plants further by forcing reductions of mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions, since those chemicals are closely correlated with CO2 emissions. Additionally, new regulations on coal ash disposal would make producing the stuff more costly for utilities, and thereby encourage alternate fuels.

Electricity from burning natural gas accounts for at least 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent (though relatively short-lived) greenhouse gas, and when it’s burned it produces CO2 (though in about half the concentration as coal). The efficiency standards Lashof recommends would also apply in the case of natural gas plants. These plants are becoming more popular not only thanks to the fuel’s falling cost, but because increases in electricity generation from wind and solar power encourage construction of natural gas-fired plants: Unlike coal plants, they can be quickly powered up and down when the wind dies down or the sky clouds over.

Much of the natural gas industry’s emissions occur before the gas is even burned in power plants, and there lies another opportunity for Obama to reduce greenhouse gases. Fracking operations (for oil as well as gas) routinely burn off methane at the source, so penalizing that practice would reduce CO2. And natural gas routinely leaks from pipelines and other distribution systems. The World Resource Institute’s 2010 inventory of U.S. greenhouse gases estimated that such leakage accounts for about 2 percent of emissions; however (as I’ve written elsewhere), researchers have more recently reported that it could be much higher than that. In April, EPA cracked down on frackers’ releases of volatile organic chemicals with a new regulation that should at the same time bring down methane emissions at wellheads by as much as 25 percent, signaling the administration’s willingness to go down that road.

About 55 percent of U.S. homes get their heat from natural gas, accounting for about 7 percent of our emissions, and this combustion source represents another opportunity for reductions. As with electric appliances, the DoE has issued (and continues to update) standards for furnaces and water heaters; tightening them could lower emissions while offsetting increased energy costs that may result from conversion to renewable sources (or from a carbon tax, if that ever happens). And although the federal government cannot require building code improvements, which is handled at the state and local levels, it can encourage them, which is another chance to lower both emissions and utility bills.

Transportation accounts for the most emissions after those associated with energy utilities—about 29 percent of the total. Obama’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles (aka cars) in May 2010 that will reduce the amount of oil used in the United States by more than what we buy from Saudi Arabia. It was such a huge leap, in fact, that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to press for more fuel-economy improvements in automakers’ consumer fleets during his second term. But the EPA has additional authority to effect reductions in cars’ tailpipe emissions regardless of their mpg. And the efficiency requirements enacted in 2010 didn’t cover vehicles like delivery trucks and 18-wheelers; given the strong buy-in from industry on the requirements for cars, upping the larger vehicles’ fuel economy should prove doable if the administration chooses to prod the industry in this direction.

Aircraft account for 2 percent of total emissions but because the bulk of their release happens high in the atmosphere, they have a higher impact on climate change than do earth-bound engines. The EPA can write emissions standards for new planes, but aircraft turnover is slow; the greater chance for significant reduction in the short-term is through operational changes like shortening routes to diminish fuel consumption, requiring aircraft to shut down engines at the airport to reduce idling, and more towing during ground taxiing.

Diesel-burning barges that move goods around the globe, the EPA found, could be targeted for a reduction of as much as 20 million metric tons of carbon, but since marine shipping is a very international market, how much the United States can affect it is questionable.

Factories, refineries, and other industrial facilities—especially cement kilns—account for about 15 percent of emissions, and the Obama administration has a good deal of leeway here. The EPA can, under the Clean Air Act’s “New Source Performance Standards,” require new or upgraded facilities that produce pollution to use the “best demonstrated technology” to limit emissions. (This is the same method that would directly target individual power plants.)

Agriculture produces about 7 percent of emissions, but there’s not much opportunity here without help from Congress. Policies enacted through the Farm Bill, which is due for renewal, could do more than the Deptartment of Agriculture or Forest Service on their own because those agencies would need an increase in their budgets—which would have to come from Congress—to be effective.

One of the smallest sources of greenhouse gas emissions is nevertheless disproportionately concerning to environmental policy analysts: hydroflourocarbons. These gases are used in air conditioners and are a “significant area of growth,” according to Lashof. The Montréal Protocol, which phased out ozone-depleting gas propellants, is currently being renegotiated to include HFCs, but since most U.S. air conditioners now in use rely on them, and venting the gas is easier and cheaper than collecting it (as repair personnel are already required to do, though enforcement is lax), they are likely to remain around 2 percent of emissions regardless of President Obama’s efforts.

Still sounds like a lot he can do though, right? Sort of. When you tally it all up, even if the president acts aggressively, it’s unlikely the United States will reach the 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels pledged (but not required) by the 2010 Copenhagen Accords. And that non-commitment is significantly less than the 20 percent below 1990 levels pledged by the European Union or the 25 percent below 1990 levels Japan has promised.

The sad fact is that without Congress’ help, the president can’t get the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to a level that won’t cause major problems in the lifetime of today’s first-graders. “The scope of the problem,” says Nicholas Bianco of the World Resource Institute, who has studied the U.S. executive’s power over emissions, “is too enormous not to have Congress taking an active role. The science is quite clear that we cannot delay.”