THREE: Crack Down on Carbon
NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called coal, the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, "the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." But Obama has failed to curb carbon pollution from coal plants. He didn't manage to push a program to cap and trade carbon emissions through Congress when he had the chance, and there's no way he can win approval for a straight-up carbon tax. But now he has a chance to do it the old-fashioned way: by wielding the power of the executive branch.
Following a 2007 ruling by the Supreme Court, the EPA has the responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. The agency is working on new rules that would cut carbon pollution from power plants – the country's single biggest source of planet-warming emissions. The question is: How tough will they be? To make Big Coal really clean up its act, the standards need to be set at roughly the same pollution levels produced by natural gas – about 1,100 pounds of pollution per megawatt hour of electricity. "That would essentially end the construction of conventional coal plants in America," says Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "But if the standards are significantly looser, they could have the perverse effect of actually encouraging the construction of a new generation of plants." The ultimate outcome – no more coal plants, or far too many – is entirely in Obama's hands.
FOUR: Strike a Deal With China
Thanks to America's failure to provide leadership in climate negotiations over the past two decades, the idea that the nations of the world will come together and strike a deal to reduce carbon pollution is an increasingly far-fetched fantasy. But rather than struggle to get global negotiations back on track, why not just cut a deal with the only other country that really matters? Given that the two nations combined emit more than 40 percent of the carbon pollution released into the atmosphere every year, a bilateral agreement with China could have a huge impact on the climate. "Deals among the major emitters are a lot more practical than global treaty-based talks through the United Nations," says David Victor, an expert in international treaties at the University of California in San Diego. A bilateral deal would also remove one of the major roadblocks to congressional action: the fear that driving up the price of oil and gas at home would send more manufacturing jobs scurrying to China.
But even if China didn't agree to a carbon cap – or if Congress refused to follow suit – climate talks with the world's biggest carbon polluter could help shift the debate over global warming. David Doniger, policy director of the National Resources Defense Council's climate center, believes a deal with China to phase out so-called "super greenhouse gases," such as hydrofluorocarbons, is within reach. "It's not going to solve the problem of climate change," he says. "But it's a step in the right direction."
FIVE: Make Coal Clean Up Its Mess
A month before obama took the oath of office, an earthen dam ruptured at a coal-waste storage pond near Kingston, Tennessee, sending a billion gallons of gray-black sludge into the Emory River, destroying homes, killing wildlife, and contaminating the soil and water. It was the second-largest industrial disaster in American history after BP, a flood of waste 100 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
Each year, coal plants in the U.S. generate nearly 140 million tons of coal ash, a toxic sludge laced with chemicals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Disposal of the ash is regulated – when it is regulated at all – by state laws, most of which are weak and filled with loopholes. For decades, the industry has poured the toxic sludge into lagoons and mines, used it to pave roads and fertilize crops, even recycled it into bowling balls and toothpaste. There are currently more than 1,000 sites that store coal ash in 35 states, and the vast majority of them are unmonitored. According to the EPA, residents who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination 2,000 times greater than federal standards permit.
None of this is any secret to EPA chief Lisa Jackson. At her confirmation hearing in 2009, just a few weeks after the Kingston spill, she was asked what she would do to protect the public from coal-waste pollution. Jackson suggested that it was time for the EPA to step in and issue new rules for disposal of the toxic waste. "The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options," she said. "I think it is time to re-ask those questions." Three years later, the EPA is still dragging its feet. New rules have been proposed to treat coal ash as "special waste" – jargon for "hazardous" – and subject it to stricter standards. But Jackson says the new regulations can't be finalized this year because the agency has to sift through 450,000 public comments submitted by opponents and advocates. It's a lame excuse for inaction – one that puts the public at risk.
"Obama needs to tackle this issue head-on," says Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at Earthjustice who has been involved in the fight over coal ash for more than a decade. "Allowing the proposal to languish is harming communities where the ash is disposed, and it is harming the coal-ash recycling industry, which needs regulatory certainty about how this material will be handled in the future."
SIX: Hang Tough on Fuel Standards
In July, Obama announced that the administration has reached an agreement with the auto industry that would nearly double fuel standards to 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Environmental advocates hailed it as the biggest step ever taken to reduce American dependence on foreign oil and cut planet-warming pollution. "If we can lock in these gains," says David Friedman, a clean-vehicles researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "it's a huge, huge deal."
The key word is "if." Although automakers have agreed to the new standards in principle, the rules could be festooned with loopholes before they are finalized next year. Obama needs to insist on three key elements. First, vehicles should not be granted fuel exemptions for supposedly "green" moves like installing cleaner air conditioners. Second, cars with four-wheel drive should be required to meet the new standards, rather than being classified as trucks. And third, automakers must not be given a pass for developing electric vehicles. As it stands now, electric cars count as zero-emission vehicles, even though most aren't. "The electricity that powers electric cars has to come from somewhere," says Dan Becker, head of the Safe Climate Campaign. "In many states, it comes from burning coal. That certainly creates greenhouse-gas pollution." If electric vehicles take off, we could end up substituting coal for oil – undercutting the environmental impact of the new fuel standards before they even take effect.
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