President Obama recently announced that he will be using NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, to require environmental review of major energy projects that includes an assessment of those projects’ climate impacts. According to a recent article on the proposed changes,
The White House is looking at requiring consideration of both the increase in greenhouse gases and a project’s vulnerability to flooding, drought or other extreme weather that might result from global warming, according to an initial proposal it issued in 2010. Those full reports would be required for projects with 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or more per year, the equivalent of burning about 100 rail cars of coal.
This will mean that proposals like Keystone XL (See Action 30) will actually have to include the whole life cycle analysis of the carbon emissions, not just of the pipeline itself but including the stripmining of Canadian tar sands and emissions associated with the final exported product. This is Obama’s direct answer to Congresses failure to act on climate change, and I wrote to thank him for taking this important step.
Do I think this is the best way to regulate our energy development decisions? No way. For one, its going to be extremely difficult to ask our federal agencies to account for climate change when, frankly, we have no federal policy or agreement as to how it is exactly we account for climate change. How complete a life cycle analysis has to be done? If China is driving the export demand for coal, how do we weigh in the mercury and greenhouse gas emissions emitted in that country in our calculations of impact in the American component of that project? Its clear that our federal agencies are not keen on nor do they necessarily have the expertise to do a good job with this: Exhibit A might be the recent tension between the White House and the Army Corps of Engineers on how far federal agencies are, or are not, willing to take this task in mine permitting.
For another, this is a reactive, not a proactive, policy approach. With this action, the administration is not moving us on a proactive course towards clean energy or energy efficiency; the primary effect here will be to raise the hurdles that companies need to jump through to permit traditional energy development. And that, undoubtedly, will be a major source of energy for our legal system and our bureaucracies, with questionable outcome in the long run for how this gets us where we need to go on alternative energy. No, what would really get us where we need to go, as I’ve talked about before, is congressional legislation establishing a strong carbon tax with a dedicated offset to mitigate its effects on low income families and a strong set of policies that guide where that new revenue stream would go, including public transit, infrastructure, efficiency, and development of cleaner, greener, domestic energy sources.
But, that sure isnt happening, is it? Nope, pretty much nothing is happening in Congress right now, including the most basic progress in budget negotiations. So in taking this step, Obama is making it very clear that he means to act where Congress will not, and I am extremely pleased to see his dedication and follow-through.