July 1, 2013

President Obama Unveils Climate Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Adapt to the Impacts of Climate Change

Plan Includes Efforts to Set Carbon Emissions Standards for Power Plants, Support Clean Energy Innovation, Promote Greater Energy Efficiency in the Transportation and Construction Sectors, and Improve the Resilience of Buildings and Infrastructure to Climate Change
Holland & Knight Alert
Amy L. Edwards

The Obama administration released its Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change on June 25, 2013. In a speech at Georgetown University unveiling the plan, President Obama recounted the variety of ways in which climate change is already having an impact, including increased severity of natural disasters, reduced agricultural production and constrained availability of drinking water, among others. In his speech, he asserted that "as a President, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say, we need to act." Under its new plan, the administration would pursue this action through a variety of current programs and new initiatives under existing legislative authority.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The plan reaffirms the president's 2009 goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The plan would pursue that goal through a variety of efforts to reduce emissions, promote clean energy sources and improve energy efficiency.

Most notably, in conjunction with issuing the plan, the president issued a presidential memorandum directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete its efforts to finalize carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. The EPA originally proposed such standards for new sources in April 2012, and the president's memorandum calls on the EPA to reissue proposed rules no later than September 20, 2013. The memorandum also directs the EPA to propose standards for existing and modified power plants by June 1, 2014, and to finalize these standards no more than one year later.

Additionally, the plan sets a goal to double the country's renewable electricity generation capacity by 2020. This goal would be accomplished by permitting additional renewable energy projects on federal lands, deploying greater renewable energy capacity on military installations and incorporating additional renewable energy capacity into federally-subsidized housing stock. In support of these efforts, the plan notes that earlier this month, the president signed another presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to streamline the siting, permitting and review process for transmission projects.

The plan also seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through increased efficiencies in both the transportation and construction sectors by instituting the following:

  • First, the plan would extend fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans, which are currently in effect for model years 2014-2018. To support the extension of these standards, the plan supports greater research into the use of biofuels, advanced batteries and fuel cells.
  • Second, the plan seeks to improve the energy efficiencies of residential and commercial buildings by establishing new appliance efficiency standards, providing additional funding through multiple existing programs, including $250 million for the Department of Agriculture's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, as well as $23 million for the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Multifamily Energy Innovation Fund, and expanding the administration's Better Buildings Challenge to include multifamily housing.
  • Finally, in addition to controlling carbon dioxide, the plan also seeks to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and lower emissions of methane. In particular, the plan calls for the development of a comprehensive, interagency methane strategy to assess current emissions data and identify technologies and best practices to reduce emissions.

Review of the Keystone Pipeline

As a surprise to many, during his speech President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of State would approve the proposed Keystone Pipeline "only if [the pipeline] does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to move forward." The Keystone Pipeline as currently proposed would carry oil from sites in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the United States. The pipeline's current application has been under consideration by the State Department since May 2012 and has faced significant opposition from environmental advocates, who have argued that the pipeline would result in increased net greenhouse gas emissions. This announcement constitutes one of the first indications by the administration as to how it would consider the environmental impacts of the pipeline as part of its review of the application.

Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the plan seeks to support federal, state and local efforts to adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change by supporting "climate-resilient" infrastructure, among other efforts.

  • First, the plan would support the development of more resilient infrastructure by directing federal agencies to identify and remove barriers that impede climate adaptation efforts and encourage investment in climate-resilient projects through agency grants, technical assistance, and other programs. In particular, the plan calls on the EPA to integrate climate change considerations into many of its programs, including its Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, as well as in making grants for brownfields cleanups.
  • Second, the plan calls on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to convene a panel on disaster-resilience standards, with the goal of crafting a comprehensive community-based framework to guide safe building and infrastructure development. In support of this effort, the plan notes that the president's fiscal year 2014 budget proposes $200 million for the Transportation Leadership Awards Program for Climate Ready Infrastructure, which provides grants to communities that incorporate climate adaptation and preparedness into their planning efforts.
  • Third, the plan recognizes that additional scientific data and other information can be essential for governments, businesses, and communities to properly manage the risks associated with climate change. The plan therefore proposes new ways in which the federal government can share its climate information with other interested stakeholders. Specifically, the plan notes that the president's fiscal year 2014 budget proposes more than $2.7 billion in funding through the multi-agency Global Change Research Program to increase the understanding of climate change impacts, establish a public-private partnership to improve catastrophe modeling, and develop the information needed to respond to the short-term impacts of extreme weather, as well as the long-term impacts of climate change. The plan also proposes to launch a climate data initiative to facilitate the private sector's use of federal climate data.

International Leadership to Address Climate Change

Although the plan focuses primarily on domestic efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, it also recognizes the United States' role in reducing emissions and mitigating climate change internationally.

  • First, the plan seeks to engage foreign nations through a variety of multilateral initiatives, including the 17-member Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, and the 42-member Global Methane Initiative, as well as multiple bilateral agreements, such as clean energy partnerships with nations including China, India and Brazil.
  • Second, the plan calls for the U.S. to work with trading partners through the World Trade Organization to increase free trade of "environmental goods," such as clean energy technologies. This effort would build on the 2011 agreement among the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) members to reduce tariffs on over 50 environmental goods.
  • Third, the plan calls for the federal government to cease its support for public financing of new coal plants overseas. Under the plan, such public financing would only be available for foreign coal plants that utilize the most efficient technologies and are located in the world's poorest countries where no feasible alternatives are available, or that utilize carbon capture and sequestration.
  • Finally, the plan notes that at the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, participating countries agreed to negotiate a new climate change agreement by 2015, to become effective in 2020. Although the plan does not detail specific parameters for the agreement, it announces American support for an agreement that is "ambitious, inclusive, and flexible."

Executive Action

Notably missing from the president's Climate Action Plan is any type of legislative strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or otherwise address climate change in any way. Since 2010, when Congress last considered, but ultimately failed to pass, meaningful climate legislation, the administration has generally avoided pursuing a legislative climate change strategy. This plan provides no indication that the administration intends to change course with the current Congress. Although some of the funding streams that the plan proposes would require congressional approval through the budget and appropriations process, the plan is generally limited to options available to the administration through executive action, existing legislative authority and available funding sources. It remains to be seen whether the actions included in the plan are sufficient to achieve the stated goal of reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels within the next seven years. However, this plan represents the administration's most forceful effort to address climate change to date.


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