The central environmental drama of the Obama years was the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in 2010. Both Obama and the environmentalists had invested all their soaring hopes in that bill. Its failure, a months-long slow bleed of wavering coal-state Democrats and hardening Republican intransigence, amounted to a kind of psychological torture for environmentalists. Cap-and-trade’s demise came to emblematize environmental policy in the Obama era. Ryan Lizza, in a lengthy 2010 New Yorker reportorial narrative, tabbed it “perhaps the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era.”
It was not the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era. There is one more.
On December 31, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The dispatches from that era feel unfathomably remote. The law passed Congress with Pearl Harbor war-resolution levels of support: In the House, 374 members favored it, with just one Nebraska Republican opposed. The Senate passed it 73-0. “Anti-pollution laws,” explained the Times, “did not excite political rivalry.” The law embodied a sweeping brand of environmental absolutism that would make Al Gore blush. It mandated that power plants use the best available technology, with no apparent thought given to the cost.
Obviously, nothing remotely like such a law could pass either chamber today. (Even Democrats favor more-cautious approaches to limiting pollution.) But the four-decade-old law has gained a new relevance to the climate crisis through a cascading, often dramatic series of recent events. The law requires the EPA to regulate “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Scientists at the time did not recognize that carbon dioxide contributed to global warming; they were more concerned with the human health effects of carbon monoxide and other chemicals. But as the scientific case for climate change hardened, environmentalists filed suit to force the EPA to regulate carbon emissions like other pollutants. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the environmentalists’ favor. In 2008, the agency officially deemed carbon dioxide a pollutant, and sent its finding to the White House. The Bush administration refused to open the e-mail, thus, incredibly, running out the clock on any legal obligation.
The coming of the Obama administration, with its greater affinity for opening e-mails and lower affinity for fossil-fuel industries, resolved the question of whether Washington had an obligation to regulate carbon emissions. After Obama’s original cap-and-trade plan failed, he started using the agency regulatory powers directly. (This is how Obama has been able to issue new regulations on cars, fuel, appliances, and future power plants.)
So far, there is one hole in his regulatory agenda: power plants that currently exist. This is, unfortunately, a very large hole, as these plants, mostly coal, emit 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Coal is so inherently dirty that no available technology can prevent a plant from emitting unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases. You can require more-efficient cars or more-efficient refrigerators, and the industry will respond. You can’t really require coal plants to be anything more than slightly cleaner; it’s just physically impossible. The only meaningful standard one could impose for a coal plant would result in all of America’s coal plants shutting down—which, even if phased in slowly, would carry large costs and likely provoke a revolt from people suddenly staring at huge electric bills. The EPA’s choice, as environmental writer David Roberts has put it, appears to be “either a firecracker or a nuke.”
During Obama’s first term, the nuke was useful, as nukes tend to be, only as a threat. The idea was so abhorrent to power companies and some Republicans that it brought them to the bargaining table during the cap-and-trade negotiations. When negotiations collapsed, the prevailing assumption was that the ability to regulate existing plants had become a useless tool, paradoxically too powerful to actually deploy.
Then, a few weeks after last year’s election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions. It sounds simple, but this was a conceptual breakthrough. Much like a cap-and-trade bill, it would allow market signals to indicate the most efficient ways for states to hit their targets—instead of shutting coal plants down, some utilities might pay consumers to weatherize their homes, while others might switch some of their generators over to cleaner fuels. The flexibility of the scheme would, in turn, reduce the costs passed on to consumers. Here is a way for Obama to use his powers—his own powers, unencumbered by the morass of a dysfunctional Congress—in such a way that is neither as ineffectual as a firecracker nor as devastating as a nuke: The NRDC calculates its plan would reduce our reliance on coal by about a quarter and national carbon emissions by 10 percent.