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Obama’s Climate Plan: A Historic Turning Point or Too Reliant on Oil, Coal, Natural Gas?

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President Obama has unveiled a climate plan that imposes the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants. The move will not require congressional approval, meaning Obama can bypass expected Republican-led opposition. In his address, Obama also outlined a broad range of measures to protect coastlines and cities from rising sea levels, and vowed to promote the development of renewable energy. In a development that has led both opponents and supporters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline to express optimism for their side, Obama said approval of the project will be contingent upon assuring it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Just how successful Obama will be in carrying out his sweeping plan to address climate change — and whether it goes far enough — is a matter of debate. We assess his speech with two guests holding differing views: Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to President Obama’s major address on global warming on Tuesday. Obama confirmed he’ll impose the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants. The move won’t require congressional approval, meaning Obama can bypass expected Republican-led opposition.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here’s the thing. Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur, and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.

So, today, for the sake of our children and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. I’m also directing the EPA to develop these standards in an open and transparent way, to provide flexibility to different states with different needs and build on the leadership that many states and cities and companies have already shown.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In his climate chane address, Obama also outlined a broad range of measures to protect coastlines and cities from rising sea levels and to encourage efforts to reach a global climate deal. He also said he would promote the development of renewable energy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, the plan I’m announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun. Today I’m directing the Interior Department to greenlight enough private renewable energy capacity on public lands to power more than six million homes by 2020. The Department of Defense, the biggest energy consumer in America, will install three gigawatts of renewable power on its bases, generating about the same amount of electricity each year as you’d get from burning three million tons of coal. And because billions of your tax dollars continue to still subsidize some of the most profitable corporations in the history of the world, my budget once again calls for Congress to end the tax breaks for big oil companies and invest in the clean energy companies that will fuel our future.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, President Obama also addressed the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He said that allowing the controversial Keystone pipeline to be built depends on whether it increases net carbon pollution. Just how successful he’ll be in carrying out his sweeping plan to address climate change and whether it goes far enough is a matter of debate.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Dan Lashof is director of the Climate and Clean Air Program of the National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. He attended President Obama’s climate speech yesterday. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dan, it was a hot afternoon there at the White House. What was your assessment of President Obama’s action plan?

DAN LASHOF: Well, Amy, this is what climate leadership looks like. The president laid out a very articulate, compelling case of the threat that climate change poses to our families, to our communities and to our planet, and a compelling vision of how to solve that problem by reducing pollution, by preparing for the effects that are already too late to avoid, and by providing international leadership. And the heart of his plan, as you rolled on the clip, is a directive to EPA to set the first federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants. They’re responsible for more carbon pollution than any other source in the United States. And right now, as he said, power plants can dump as much carbon as they want into the atmosphere for free. That’s wrong, and it needs to stop. And it will as a result of this plan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tyson Slocum, your response to the speech yesterday, to Obama’s speech?

TYSON SLOCUM: It was a great, inspiring speech. The problem is, is that the details of it are a lot less inspiring. The centerpiece of Obama’s comments were on establishing these rules to limit carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. That’s actually not a new proposal. Last year, Obama’s EPA rolled out such plans for new power plants, and two months ago they withdrew them under heavy criticism from the coal industry and from the utility industry. So you’d have to imagine that the fact that they shelved these plans because utilities and coal companies didn’t like them, that they’re going to be reintroduced by September most likely at a weaker level than they were proposed last year. So, again, it’s up to all the activists and all the organizations out there, including Dan’s and mine, to make sure that Obama reintroduces the same rules that he did last year that essentially would not allow new coal-fired power plants to be built.

In addition, Obama really underscored—

DAN LASHOF: But, Tyson, just one—

TYSON SLOCUM: —reiterated his support for an all-of-the-above energy strategy that continues to rely heavily on oil and natural gas. And, you know, an all-of-the-above energy policy, as Van Jones has said, makes as much sense as an all-you-can-eat-buffet diet. So I think that we’ve got to reassess the administration’s continued commitment to increasing fracking for natural gas, which this administration is committed to, and exporting that fracked gas to other countries. And, in addition, the plan does nothing to curtail coal exports. So, even if we develop great rules to limit U.S. power plant emissions of greenhouse gases, it’s going to be overwhelmed by the emissions from U.S. coal that is burned in other countries like China.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Lashof of Natural Resources Defense Council?

DAN LASHOF: Well, first of all, EPA hasn’t withdrawn its standard for new power plants. It looks like they’re going to repropose a standard, but in the meantime you can’t build a new power plant that emits as much as conventional dirty coal plants built. That’s still in effect. The plan—and the important thing here is that the president set a specific directive to EPA to finish these standards by June of 2015. Now, you know, we should have taken these steps decades ago, but this is the first time we have a clear deadline from the president of the United States to EPA to end the carbon pollution loophole. That’s a huge step forward. And, yes, we’re going to be mobilizing the public to make sure that these standards are as strong as possible and to make sure that the coal industry isn’t able to derail them either through the courts or by trying to get Congress to interfere. But the president really provided crucial leadership yesterday. And, you know, when it comes to reducing carbon pollution, reducing methane, reducing hydrofluorocarbons, expanding renewable energy, expanding energy efficiency, we absolutely need an all-of-the-above approach to those things. You know, all of the above is just rhetoric. What’s important here is we actually have a concrete plan to reduce emissions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about on the question of the coal industry? Do you feel that—could you comment on what Tyson said?

DAN LASHOF: Well, the coal industry hates this plan, and they’re going to do everything they can to stop it. They’ve already said that. They’re going to put millions of dollars into derailing it. Coal stocks went down, which shows you that the markets are already reacting to this. You know, the president, in addition to the domestic actions, he called for ending public finance of new conventional coal plants around the world, so that’s an important step forward. And, most importantly, the U.S. has to lead. And to lead, we have to have a concrete program here to reduce our pollution. This plan allows the president to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s defense of fracking?

DAN LASHOF: Well, he didn’t really get into fracking in the speech. He did call for new measures to reduce methane emissions, which is an important aspect of this. Methane is a powerful climate-changing agent, and it leaks out of oil and gas systems. We absolutely need better regulation to control that. And we shouldn’t be expanding fracking until we have strong regulations in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyler Slocum, the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline?

TYSON SLOCUM: Well, it’s great that the—that Obama mentioned the fact that tar sands feature significantly more greenhouse gas emissions risk than conventional oil, and he said that he would not approve the Keystone pipeline if it resulted in a net increase in emissions. The problem is that his own State Department has already said that it will not result in a net increase in emissions. So, again, at first glance, his words sounded great, but the deeds of his agencies and his administration says another thing. At this point, the—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, John Boehner’s people immediately said—the House speaker—since he said only if this doesn’t increase net gas emissions, they said, “Well, since we know it doesn’t, I guess they’re moving ahead.”

DAN LASHOF: Right, but any fair assessment—

TYSON SLOCUM: Right, and so what this means is that—is that the massive grassroots mobilization that has made Keystone, rightfully so, a key issue to oppose needs to mobilize again. And we have to have a redo of that environmental impact statement that the State Department conducted. And, actually, the State Department didn’t conduct it; it was a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute that conducted that analysis that falsely concluded that Keystone will not result in net emissions. So, again, it’s up to the activists out there to keep Obama at his word.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Lashof, five seconds.

DAN LASHOF: Yeah, well, Tyson’s right. The State Department assessment was wrong. EPA actually weighed in and said it was inadequate, which is an important indication that the revised plan will change. And even Wall Street is clear that the Keystone pipeline is critical to expanding tar sands. So, we think this will lead to a rejection of Keystone.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Tyler Slocum of Public Citizen and Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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