President Obama should think outside federal box for biggest climate benefit

by Mike Johnson

December 5, 2013

Today, President Obama ordered federal agencies to source 20 percent of their electricity from new renewable sources by 2020. The move comes as an update to a 2009 executive order that set renewable energy standards for the federal government. While President Obamas announcement shows leadership in climate action, his record on climate remains inconsistent and sometimes penny-wise, pound-foolish.

The President touted federal agencies reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent (for a total of 7.8 million metric tons of carbon pollution) since the beginning of his tenure. While such reductions are nothing to sneeze at, the 15% reduction figure mimics the national average for electricity and pales in comparison to emissions increases tied to federal decision making. After all, the indirect impacts of federal decision-making on Arctic drilling, renewable energy standards and coal leasing dwarf the gains achieved by the federal government. The enormity of indirect impacts relative to direct impacts can be seen in the context of some major looming federal decisions on energy.

Arctic drilling (10 days). Based on Shells expected daily Arctic drilling production of 1.8 million barrels of crude oil and 2.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas, the governments 7.8 million tons of emissions cuts since 2009 would be negated in 10 days. The estimated 282 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from that exploration would amount to one-eighth of 2012 nationwide emissions from power generation (according to EIA). The administration can demonstrate its climate leadership and concern for the health and safety of coastal Alaskan communities by stopping Shell from going beyond its exploration to date and prospect of a disastrous repeat of Deepwater Horizon.

Power generation (25 days). As many coal-fired power plants opt to retire instead of complying with new pollution laws, the advancement of new renewable energy to replace them remains uneven. At the same time, an ALEC-led attack on State clean energy standards and net metering threatens to penalize early renewables adopters who paid a price premium to spur innovation. Meanwhile, as California utilities predict they will meet 33% renewable energy goals by 2020, utility laggards like Duke Energy in North Carolina continue to source next to none of their energy from new renewables. As the President looks to encourage clean energy, address income inequality and climate change, he should enlist industry leaders, elected officials and service agencies to devise a plan to eliminate energy poverty and source 33% of electricity from renewables nationwide by 2020. Relative to EIA forecasts, doing so would achieve a reduction of 7.8 million tons in 25 days by 2020. Far from being an and/or proposition, fuel-free renewable energy and energy choice can and should go hand in hand in securing a livable climate and abundant energy supplies in the face of an unsustainable, fracking-induced natural gas boom.

Coal leasing (48 days). As Greenpeace previously reported, the Bureau of Land Managements lease of the South Porcupine tract to Peabody will result in emissionsten times as great as a decade of the Presidents planned efficiency improvements. Cast in a different light, 48 days worth of production from just that single mine expansion would negate the 7.8 million ton reduction achieved by the government. The Obama Administration can demonstrate its leadership on climate change by suspending new BLM coal leases altogether.

Overall, a recent report shows that because of the massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas the federal government is currently helping to unlock, Americas public lands generate 4.5 times as much carbon pollution than they absorb. With an estimated 1.55 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions coming from fossil fuels extracted from federal lands in 2010 alone, the 7.8 million tons the federal government has managed to avoid from its own operations since President Obama took office looks decidedly less impressive.

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