Clean Power Plan: Not Quite Moving Mountains

Christopher St. Clair

By now it’s old news that President Obama has restored Denali as the official name of America’s highest peak, returning it to Alaska’s natives and erasing another example of American cultural imperialism. At the time of this article’s publication, Obama will have finished his historic tour of The Last Frontier, where he spoke to locals about climate change and snapped a few photos with his selfie stick. By the end of this year Obama and his colleagues will probably have launched headlong into a vigorous debate over his new and improved Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent over the next fifteen years.

But by 2030, it’s doubtful that we’ll feel any of the lingering effects of Obama’s plan, not just because it’s being fought tooth and nail already by conservatives, but because it’s just an average plan at best. The White House website touts the Clean Power Plan as “the biggest step yet to combat climate change,” but it offers only a modest set of teeth and flies in the face of many of Obama’s past and present initiatives. With a long history of environmental ups and downs in his track record, it’s tough to say with any measure of certainty what this will do for Americans.

To his credit, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package dumped billions into green energy initiatives and saw a dramatic increase in solar and wind farms, and his tough 2012 fuel-efficiency standards are still set to reduce our oil consumption by over 12 billion barrels. Thus it would be dishonest to suggest that all his policies have inevitably failed or not met their goals. But even though Obama has always been an advocate for green energy, his policies in recent years have been wildly inconsistent and even hypocritical.

Take the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to start. Obama has been a champion of the TPP, which seeks to eliminate trade barriers between major Pacific Rim nations and establish common policies for intellectual property and labor standards. Not surprisingly, environmentalists have warned that expanding corporate political rights could have dramatic effects on climate legislation and put an even greater strain on the environment. ThinkProgress reported in May that legislation in the leaked TPP drafts allows corporations to sue TPP participants over pollution and energy laws that directly interfere with their industries. Obama has so far been mum on the environmental challenges of the TPP.

Maybe a more egregious example comes from just two weeks prior to Obama’s Arctic expedition. In an ironic gesture, Obama finalized a deal that will allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill off the coast of Alaska, the first time an oil corporation has been permitted to drill in the region in over twenty years. To add insult to injury, Obama’s tour saw his advocating for a new fleet of enormous, oil-guzzling icebreakers to free up shipping lanes in seas increasingly ravaged by random freezing (which is, of course, the result of increasing global temperatures).

Besides this, the plan itself doesn’t even propose a lot. The numbers and figures provided in the finalized plan released last month are only a slight departure from the flimsy standards suggested in last year’s drafts. Many of the standards are only different by a percentage point, and some positions even got weaker. For one, the new plan departs from the original by making no headway for the development of zero-emissions, renewable energy power plants, especially nuclear energy. It also gives far more flexibility and pushback to the states, allowing them unprecedented autonomy in the implementation of new standards and far less oversight than previously thought.

In fact, many of the policy goals of the plan are well on their way to completion; standards have been set so low as to be practical to implement in American politics but not tough enough to secure any significant progress in the fight against climate change. As Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance reported earlier this year, 2015 was a “watershed year” for clean energy and saw record emission lows coupled with renewable energy highs. The report found that emissions should be 15.4 percent lower than 2005 numbers – already half of the proposed estimates for 2030.

The Clean Power Plan feels more like legacy building than a hardy attempt at reshaping America’s energy plans. Its provisions are insubstantial enough so as to be adopted by the states and met with little consequence over its fifteen-year timeline. It lacks the character, substance and muscle of Obama’s early cracks at climate change. It’s not fair to expect much in the twilight hours of Obama’s presidency, but it is equally unfair to herald his plan as “the biggest step yet” when it is increasingly clear that little is going to change.

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