Carbon Regulations and Keystone Silence: Previewing Obama’s Climate Speech

President Obama is set to give a major address on climate change today — one that won't include the Keystone XL pipeline. Will carbon regulations make a real difference?

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President Obama speaks at the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009

In just a few hours, President Obama will give what the White House is calling a major speech on climate change at Georgetown University — and for his increasingly wobbly environmental supporters, this is a long time coming. The White House complains that it doesn’t get enough credit for its environmental accomplishments: reducing carbon emissions, negotiating tough new auto fuel-efficiency standards and pouring billions upon billions of dollars of funding into renewable-energy research and deployment. The White House is right, but the reality is that the environmental history of Obama’s first term will always be dominated by the conspicuous failure of carbon cap and trade. There was a narrow two-year window when comprehensive climate legislation might have been possible, but Obama — and, it should be said, his environmental allies — couldn’t push the ball across the goal line. Add in the fact that Obama has largely cheered the rapid increase in U.S. oil and gas production, while sending decidedly mixed signals on the proposed Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline, and it’s not hard to see why that segment of the American population that views climate change as an existential threat is feeling so dissatisfied.

Will today’s speech settle the green dissent? Perhaps. The White House is releasing a laundry list of green initiatives to accompany Obama’s address — the most important of which is a presidential memorandum that will direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish carbon-pollution standards for new and existing power plants, under the authority of the Clean Air Act. This could potentially be a very big deal. Power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the country, accounting for about a third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions — much of it from older coal plants. If the EPA were to establish strict pollution standards for carbon (none exist right now), utilities might well be forced to close down coal plants in favor of newer natural gas, coal plants with carbon sequestration (a technology that doesn’t yet exist on a commercial scale), nuclear or renewables. Obama would likely leave the White House with an impressive legacy on climate change.

(MORE: 145 Obama Campaign Staffers Call for Rejection of Keystone XL Pipeline)

But energy and climate policy is a matter of details, and it’s far from clear now just how strict Obama’s carbon regulations will be. Nor are we likely to get more specificity today. Expect the President to talk in sweeping terms about the urgency of combatting climate change, but don’t expect clarity on how urgent is urgent. It won’t unfold quickly; it will take the EPA a year to prepare carbon regulations for existing power plants, and another year to finalize them. In between, we can expect legal challenges from the power industry, as well as lot of kicking and screaming from Republicans and some conservative Democrats about the potential costs of those regulations. And don’t forget that the EPA still doesn’t have an administrator: former EPA head Lisa Jackson stepped down at the start of Obama’s second term, and his new nominee Gina McCarthy is stuck in confirmation purgatory. Republicans in the Senate can’t do much to stop EPA regulations, but they can make McCarthy’s nomination fight hell.

And while environmentalists will cheer power-plant regulations and the rest of Obama’s climate agenda, they’re still worried about the possible presidential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. There won’t be any news on that today — a senior White House official told reporters in a press call that the proposal was “not yet ready for a decision,” even though it’s been on the table for years. Green activists from groups like plan to be on hand at Georgetown today to remind Obama that they will settle for nothing less than a rejection of the pipeline. I think it’s a tactical mistake, but I doubt carbon regulations now will be enough to appease them should the President eventually decide to approve Keystone, as many anticipate. This is a battle that has only been deferred.

(MORE: Obama Talked Climate Change in His Inaugural Address. Now Can He Do Something About It?)

As Obama often takes pain to note, carbon regulation is a second-best policy. He and most experts would have preferred cap and trade or some form of carbon taxation. As Matthew Yglesias notes over at Slate, any carbon regulation that has teeth will impose real economic costs on utilities and therefore ratepayers — and that cost will be most felt by the Midwest and the Southeast, where coal is the dominant source of electricity. A carbon tax would at least generate revenue that might cushion that blow, but the EPA can’t institute a tax or auction off carbon permits as California is doing right now. All it can do to lessen the economic cost is weaken the actual regulations — which is precisely what may happen. Obama’s climate speech may well be historic, but the bar for history when it comes to federal action on climate change is not very high.

Additional actions to be announced today:

  • Up to $8 billion in loan guarantees to be made available for advanced fossil fuel — including carbon capture — and energy-efficiency projects.
  • Fast-track permits for renewable-energy projects on public lands.
  • Toughened efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.
  • New fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles.
  • New strategies for climate adaptation.
  • An end to U.S. government support for public financing of most new coal-fired power plants overseas.

MORE: Obama Talks Climate Change. California Is Acting on It


The EPA already has limits on carbon emission. When it comes to power plants, you need to be more concerned about Mercury. Climate change, mehh, poisonous Mercury is much worse. You also need to worry about particulate matter. These things have more risks to humans than carbon dioxide. Look at a pollution map for the east coast. CO2 has been a problem for decades, 40% of pollution comes from CO2 emissions from cars. Natural gas is a good idea but will take decades to be put to any significant use. Cutting down trees is a significant source for not changing that CO2 into oxygen. The earth goes through trends of warmth and cooling. We can't change that.  The earth replenish itself. Reduce humans and that will take care of a lot of our problems. Nuclear is an excellent alternative but people say "NIMBY", Not in My Back Yard. I'm going to school for safety science and I know that coal-fired power plants are a problem. The thing is, regulations are rarely enforced. The Clean Air Act is important but you also need to be worried about Clean Water Act. Should we really be concerned about "Global Warming"? Look at the more immediate problems like our water.


Carbon regulation or carbon cap etc. are economy bashing measures, which will easily overwhelm the fragile 'Quantitative Easing' measures.  You can see how perilous things are when you note the reaction of the financial world to the slightest hint from Bernanke that there will be an end to the gush of money from the Fed.  

And the notion that a State Department would have jurisdiction over the matter of Keystone shows that authorities have no interest in providing stable government.

All that being said, there is still a need for CO2 reduction, but the amazing thing is the little interest in doing things that could help cut CO2 as well as invigorate and stabilize the economy.  3D printing will not do it, but a National program to implement a universal irrigation system would.  The largest resource America has is land, and the startling fact is that it is much under-used.  Water is the main problem and we have the knowledge to fix this.  We would have to overcome the notion that water is in short supply; it is not.  We do need to reconsider our priorities in this matter, but with reasonable adjustment in policies this could be accomplished.

Labor is also an issue, and there is a great need to improve working conditions so that more will find the work attractive.   

It is not easy to get the water problem on the political agenda, but while we wait there are things to do to better enable workers as well as help growers make better use their land.  See:


Only problem with targeting power generation is the fact that the power companies will simply turn about and kick their customers right in the a$$ to cut their losses. You're ultimately trading slightly lowered pollution levels for increased hardship on the poor and middle class.


This is assinine, I'm still waiting for the new ice age science said was going to happen 40 years ago.

Truth is science can barely predict if it will rain tomorrow.

Now its worse with the political agendas.

Maybe we are warming, maybe we're not........... There are a lot of scientists that say we're actually in a bit of a cooling trend.

But since they do not fit the AGENDA, they are quickly defunded and silenced.

Trith is we have NO control over what mother nature does.

Want to cut down on carbon dioxide???

Just shut up Mr President, before you kill more jobs.


At this point, it's more productive to talk about how to deal with the consequences of global warming and/or research on how to reverse it.  It seems inevitable we will continue burning fossil fuels until they are all gone.  

Not that i'm against the stricter regulations.  But if massive droughts and devastating storms aren't enough to convince people something needs to be done, then it will be far far too late before seeing any consequences that will.


It is my understanding he is only doing what he can that doesn't need the Congress to get done.  This is wise since the Congress will do nothing on anything unless it has something to do with setting their re-elections in stone... and by that I mean changing election, voting, and districting rules, not helping citizens.

If we perfect clean and perhaps even free (in the long run) power generation the world will follow... China and India too, just like few people use an abacus to balance their books when a computer is available... even if the abacus is much cheaper.  Besides, China and India are already feeling the heat for years of no environmental regulations in manufacturing.  As their numbers grow a middle class revolt is brewing on that score.


He is so misguided. He has the greens in his pocket already. Coal exports are in our interests, BTW. The world wants coal and it might as well be ours. He is killing Peabody Energy, the world's largest private sector coal company.


Science can end this costly debate instantly by issuing a clear warning not another 28 years of “maybe” a real crisis. Not one IPCC warning isn’t swimming in maybes and could bes and…. Don't scientists have doomed kids as well or is it just us?
Not one scientific paper in 28 years of intensive research has ever said a crisis was as real as these same scientists say comet hits are, as in; “eventual” or “inevitable” or just WILL be a crisis. How close to the edge of no return will they take us before they issue a REAL warning for a REAL crisis?
And get up to date:
*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).
*Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
*Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses.