Since then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel convinced House Democrats to bite down hard and vote for a climate change bill that the Senate could never pass, a legislative effort to induce a carbon payment scheme has been a no-go, even for the party of the president. But in his inauguration, Barack Obama promised that he'd make progress. He feels guilty that he promised to pass legislation in his first term and did not. There are a bunch of things he could do.
The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide emissions. All the EPA has to do is show that CO2 emissions cause harm. Once duly shown, the EPA can impose limits on emissions. In 2012, the EPA found that CO2 emissions were sufficiently harmful, and it has since been working on a slew of new regulations. They've yet to be released. (The Supreme Court, in 2007, ruled that the EPA would be negligent if it did not regularly subject all sorts of emissions to what's known as an "endangerment" standard.)
Emissions from older coal power plants are particularly ripe. But the economic costs of tightly regulating emissions from coal plants are fairly high. Unilateral action would have been politically difficult in his first term given the state of the economy. Look at where the oil and coal industry's jobs are concentrated.
But now, as Ron Brownstein notes, the economy is getting better. And the energy market in the United States is changing rapidly. Fracking, which has already spurred a Hollywood protest movie, is on the rise. It now accounts for 29 percent of all energy generated inside the United States. Environmentalists don't like fracking because breaking through the ground to release hydrocarbons trapped in shale releases all sorts of bad chemicals into the surrounding environment and steals water from natural springs. It emits methane, a greenhouse gas, in significant quantities.
But the existing science suggests that fracking is orders of magnitude less harmful than CO2 emissions from coal plants. Fracking isn't safe. It has an awful name. But it's a much better near-term alternative than new coal plants. It is a transition fuel; a way-station between oil and coal, on the one side of history, and renewable energy, like water and solar power, on the other.
The Department of Energy says that if cars ran on fuel from natural gas rather than on fuel from oil refineries, CO2 emissions could decline as much as 90 percent. If Obama imposes modest caps on emissions from existing coal plants, the U.S. could see its CO2 emissions levels stabilize at roughly the levels they were before George W. Bush took office.
A rapid transition from coal and refined oil to natural gas is not in the cards; cars need to be made to slurp it and a lot more of it needs to be produced before there is parity. But government-imposed emissions caps on coal plants won't have nearly the economic bite they would have had a decade ago, and doing so would encourage companies to shift future investment.
And though the politics remain tricky, it's not like the natural industry won't have its lobbyists, too, fighting tooth and frack against Big Coal in Congressional districts where jobs are at stake.