Yesterday, the Obama administration announced the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing U.S. power plants. This groundbreaking regulation is an important first step towards addressing the largest source of climate-warming pollutants, and a small step on the way towards an energy future based largely on renewable energy.
The rule allows each state to choose from a broad menu of carbon-cutting options, including energy efficiency improvements, clean energy sources, implementing a carbon tax, or instituting or joining a cap-and-trade system. Overall, the new rule will cut carbon pollution from power plants by 25% by 2020, and 30% by 2030, using 2005 emissions levels as a starting point.
While this is a step in the right direction, all of the important work that will be done by the Clean Power Plan could be undone if the Obama administration does not strictly limit methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Methane only makes up about nine percent of all greenhouse gases, but over 20 years it is 86 times as potent in generating global warming as CO2. Given the recent science on the pace and scope of global warming, the next 20 years are crucial.
Unfortunately, on-the-ground, peer-reviewed studies in three basins—Colorado, Utah and California—have shown that the actual methane releases from conventional and shale production are much more than what industry, or even EPA, claims. And new science continues to show that natural gas is as bad or worse for the climate than coal. This makes the White House’s plan for increased use of natural gas as a transition fuel to cleaner energy a bad idea, and underlines the need for the EPA to step in to curb methane emissions from current oil and gas operations across the country.
The White House recently announced a new methane pollution strategy that seems a step in the right direction, but frankly it is too slow. Right now EPA’s woeful underestimate of methane emissions from gas production is based on a combination of industry data, best case measurements from individual wells which operators knew in advance were being measured, and an inexplicable reduction of the IPCC’s assessment of methane’s greenhouse impact. To head off catastrophic climate change, EPA and the White House should be making energy and climate decisions based on the best available science now, and if the methane pollution strategy requires changes as it develops, make them at that point.
To truly transform our energy generation systems, politicians at all levels, including the Obama administration, must shift from an “all of the above” energy strategy to one that throws the full weight of our resources behind renewable energy. Wind and solar energy is cost competitive with fossil fuels, and brings along with it jobs, cleaner air and a healthier climate. In 2013 alone, the renewable energy sector created 800,000 jobs, and we added more renewable energy to the grid last quarter than any other energy source.
The Obama administration’s work to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants should be lauded, but there is much more to be done to ensure we restore the climate for our children and grandchildren.