Two Key Climate Decisions Facing President Obama: Keystone XL & power plant greenhouse gas pollution standards

Tar Sand - Obama - Power Plant.PNG

“My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change…”  Those were the words of President Obama before taking office.  President Obama has taken the critical step to require that U.S. vehicles get more miles per gallon and reduce their carbon pollution.  Now he is facing two additional critical decisions over the coming months which will shape his climate legacy and help to determine whether his Presidency will truly mark a new chapter on global warming.  His decisions on Keystone XL and standards for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants will shape this legacy.


The decision on Keystone XL will likely be made in the next few weeks (or months).  This decision will determine whether President Obama decides to lock the U.S. (and Canada) into supporting the dirtiest oil on the planet.  Thousands of people are planning to come to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, November 6 to remind President Obama that leadership means rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline because it is not in our national interest. 

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to more carbon pollution into the atmosphere – the kind of pollution which scientists from around the world are documenting will lead to more extreme weather.  If the Keystone XL pipeline is completed and operating at its capacity, the project would increase carbon pollution by 27 million metric tons of CO2 (according to the EPA) – equivalent to the reductions achieved from the heavy-duty truck standards recently finalized by President Obama.  And tar sands operators have plans to expand tar sands even more which would lead to an additional 228 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution annually**.  Tar sands expansion also has a devastating impact on the carbon stored in the boreal forests and peatlands where the tar sands extraction is occurring.  According to one analysis, under “full development” the devastation to these forests and peatlands could add another 8 million tons of CO2 per year to the damage.

Keystone XL would lead to a large amount of pollution and could be the “gateway drug” to much larger carbon pollution that is causing global warming.  


The decision on carbon pollution from power plants is long overdue and  the Supreme Court has twice confirmed EPA’s authority to issue such rules.  It is essential that President Obama complete these standards as soon as possible in 2012.  Power plants are the nation’s largest source of dangerous carbon pollution.  Today, 40 years after passage of the Clean Air Act, they are still free to dump unlimited amounts of that pollution into the air.  In settlement of litigation and in representations to the Supreme Court, the Obama Administration has committed to address power plants’ enormous contribution to the air pollution that drives climate change.  The Clean Air Act requires that President Obama establish legally enforceable standards that significantly reduce carbon emissions from both new and existing power plants.  

Each year power plants in the US pump more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air – equivalent to one-third of all U.S. global warming pollution.  President Obama has proposed to Congress a Clean Energy Standard that would cut power plant carbon pollution substantially but Congress has not acted.  But President Obama has the power to clean up and modernize the power sector under the Clean Air Act even if Congress refuses to do what needs to be done to bring this industry into the 21st Century.  These Clean Air Act rules could significantly cut this carbon pollution by adopting strong standards that avoid locking in dirty sources of energy, spur the use of already available technologies (e.g., wind, solar, energy efficiency, and less polluting fossil fuel), and encourage smart operations by power plant owners.  These aren’t “rocket science” kinds of activities – they are actions that are already being deployed in the U.S. and around the world.  After all, last year wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean power accounted for almost one-third of the new power capacity installed around the world.  And these actions are springing up throughout America as NRDC’s new renewable energy map shows.

With a go ahead from the White House, EPA could propose innovative standards for power plant carbon pollution in the next couple of months and adopt them later in 2012.  This would create new jobs to replace and modernize dinosaur coal plants and position the power sector to be a sustainable engine of growth for the American economy in the decades ahead.

The Administration told the Supreme Court earlier this year that it would propose Clean Air Act rules for power plant carbon emissions in 2011, as part of an agreement to settle lawsuits brought by states and environmental groups including NRDC.  Those standards are now overdue.

Many power companies support EPA action, because they know that this problem can’t be wished away and that they can thrive while cleaning up.  But some of the biggest polluters and their political supporters are trying to undermine efforts to clean up the nation’s power plants.  President Obama has the power to say no to these obstructors and yes to less carbon pollution from U.S. power plants by adopting strong standards for new and existing power plants.

Each decision is about whether the U.S. makes investments in dirty sources of energy or encourages clean sources.  Each decisions is about whether the U.S. implements strong standards to protect our health, create clean energy jobs, and reduce U.S. pollution that is causing global warming.  These are not decisions about jobs versus the environment or energy versus no-energy.  They are decisions about whether we invest in the future or stay stuck in the past.  They are both decisions that President Obama will make (as one President famously said the “buck stops here”).

And they are both decisions which shape President Obama’s climate legacy and determine whether this is really a new chapter in American action on global warming.


* Tar Sands Photo: Chris Evans, The Pembina Institute, courtesy of; President Obama Photo: TalkMediaNews; Power Plant Photo: arbyreed.

** The tar sands industry is in various stages of development, permitting, and approval of tar sands extraction which could lead to 7.6 million barrels per day of tar sands.  Using the same calculations as EPA, the emissions created from producing this much tar sands compared with the equivalent amount of conventional oil would be 228 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

*** Thanks to David HawkinsDavid Doniger, and Danielle Droitsch for helpful comments.