It was just four years ago this month that a U.S. House controlled by Democrats narrowly passed an ambitious cap-and-trade bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions and addressing climate change. It might as well have been four decades ago, as the legislation failed to win support in the Senate and now congressional Republicans avoid the issue. That left President Barack Obama with no choice but to tackle the threat of global warming with reasonable initiatives that his administration can take without Congress.
The centerpiece of the president's package uses the Clean Air Act to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants as well as future ones. The Environmental Protection Agency's work on new emissions standards for future plants already has eliminated any serious talk of traditional coal-fired electric plants. That's one reason why Duke Energy is aiming to bring a natural gas plant online in 2018 in Crystal River. Obama's direction to the EPA to issue similar rules for existing coal plants, depending on the timing, might affect Duke's plans to use a new coal blend to extend the life of two older coal units until the gas plant opens. It also could affect the long-term future of two other Crystal River coal plants that have updated emission control devices commonly referred to as scrubbers.
Obama is not making coal-producing states happy, but he is correct to focus on power plant emissions. About 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution is traced to coal- and gas-fired power plants. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by about 11 percent since 2005, and the president remains committed to increasing that to 17 percent by 2020. Much of the reduction so far can be attributed to lower demand for electricity because of the economic recession, and to moving from coal to natural gas as gas prices have dropped with new exploration techniques increasing the supply. Failing to address existing coal plants would be shortsighted and jeopardize the progress that has been made.
Other aspects of Obama's proposals are less controversial but important in a comprehensive strategy: increasing the energy efficiency of appliances, encouraging more energy efficient construction, and doubling renewable energy efforts on federal lands. Less clear but particularly important for Florida is the president's commitment to better protect communities from the impact of climate change. He cited the Everglades restoration as an example of efforts to protect drinking water supplies — and reduce flooding. But it also could be harder for Florida to get federal money to build new roads if strict rules are written to avoid flood-prone areas and areas susceptible to storm surges. That covers an awful lot of area in Tampa Bay and elsewhere.
As Obama pointed out, the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that global warming poses a serious threat even as too many members of Congress refuse to acknowledge the facts. Continuing to reduce carbon emissions is a key part of addressing climate change, and a straightforward carbon tax would be the best approach. But this Congress won't touch that issue. Until that situation changes, the president's only option is to pursue more modest efforts that the executive branch can do alone.