Greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped dramatically in the United States since 2005, and the nation now appears on track to achieve the 17 percent reduction sought by President Obama by 2020, thanks to a trend toward increased fuel efficiency for vehicles and a switch by power companies from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas made possible by the shale gas revolution.
The conservation trend, which began before Mr. Obama took office in response to $4 a gallon gasoline prices, accelerated as a result of the stringent environmental regulations the administration imposed on power plants, cars and trucks in Mr. Obama's first term, and is likely to gain further momentum as Mr. Obama ratchets up environmental mandates in his second term, climate activists say.
While the U.S. was once vilified by other nations as the world's biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, those days are over, with U.S. emissions falling by 10 percent in the past seven years. At a United Nations conference on climate change in Doha, Qatar, late last year, the United States was the star performer, having achieved a bigger emissions drop than most European and developing-world countries at the event, participants said.
China came more sharply into focus as the biggest and fastest-growing source of emissions as it relies increasingly on coal -- the biggest source of CO2 emissions -- to generate electricity.
"The U.S. was in a much stronger position going into the Doha talks, despite the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation" during Mr. Obama's first term, because market and regulatory pressures were already reducing emissions, said Trevor Houser, a former U.S. climate negotiator who attended the Doha talks. "For countries like China that were able to hide behind a perception of U.S. inaction, the fact that U.S. emissions are falling helps increase pressure. It takes away the excuse that action is stalled because of the U.S."
A combination of factors
While idled workers and plants during the Great Recession account for some of the decline in U.S. emissions since 2005, analysts think that trends toward increased conservation and cleaner energy sources are well-established and will continue for years even as the economy picks up.
The trends are the result of a combination of factors, including high gasoline prices since the late-2000s, which have prompted Americans to buy more fuel-efficient cars and use their cars less, along with increasingly strict fuel-economy regulations, which started with the government takeover of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009. Those regulations will double the fuel efficiency of cars to more than 54.5 miles per gallon on average by 2025.
Add to that an unexpected boost from the shale revolution, which is unlocking huge volumes of inexpensive natural gas and making that an irresistible alternative for power plants that are under the gun from the administration to cut their use of coal. About half of the nation's power previously was generated by coal, but new regulations raising standards for new power plants have pushed many utilities to build new gas-fired plants or consider renewables such as wind while retiring an army of coal-fired plants that are more than a half-century old.
In addition to regulations limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from new power plants, the old coal-fired plants have been targeted for extinction by a raft of other environmental rules restricting mercury, lead, ozone and other pollutants, what critics have dubbed a "war on coal." As a result, U.S. power generators plan to retire 170 coal-fired plants by 2020, according to SNL Energy research.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, among other business groups, and their Republican allies in Congress have fought the regulations tooth and nail, contending they are hurting economic growth. A NAM study last fall put the annual cost of six Environmental Protection Agency regulations targeting coal-fired plants as high as $139 billion and would raise electricity prices by 6.6 percent a year for consumers. But natural-gas utilities question those figures and contend that gas at today's low prices is the most affordable as well as the cleanest source of electricity.
The administration's new fuel-economy regulations for cars and trucks are expected to add about $1,000 to the cost of a new vehicle, but most of that would be offset over time by consumers spending less on gasoline, studies show.
While business groups have mobilized against the regulations, environmental groups are so pleased with their success at limiting emissions that they are encouraging the administration to stay the course and turn the screws further to achieve the 17 percent reduction pledge, originally given at the Copenhagen climate change talks in 2009.
Rather than prod a reluctant and gridlocked Congress to try to tamp down emissions through such controversial measures as a carbon tax or a scheme to cap and trade power-plant emissions, environmental groups point out that the EPA already has powerful enough tools to limit greenhouse gases. The EPA's Clean Air Act authority over greenhouse gases was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2007 and so far has survived most other challenges by businesses.
"The administration has multiple ways to move forward with smart policies to reduce U.S. emissions," said Nicholas Bianco, author of a World Resources Institute study released last week that concludes the U.S. could attain Mr. Obama's 17 percent emissions cut through regulatory measures. "The best opportunity is to enact new standards for existing power plants, which represent one-third of all U.S. emissions."
Without any action by Congress, Mr. Obama could meet his international commitment not only by moving to limit carbon emissions from existing and new power plants, but by limiting methane emissions from natural-gas production, increasing energy-efficiency mandates for appliances and businesses, and curbing such non-energy gases as hydrofluorocarbon, a refrigerant, Mr. Bianco said.
Better than legislation
A study by Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, in October also found that by sticking with the current regulatory course, the administration could achieve its commitments, and actually might accomplish more than a bill to cap greenhouse emissions that failed in the Senate in 2010.
The group's study credited the drop in emissions since 2005 not only to EPA's aggressive use of its regulatory authority, but to the existing trend toward fuel conservation by consumers, the switch to natural gas by utilities, and a push toward greater use of wind power and other renewable fuels in 29 U.S. states.
"To the surprise of many, the United States appears able to meet its mitigation obligations under the Copenhagen agreement," and is doing even better today than it would have under the climate-change bill passed by the House in 2010, said Dallas Burtraw, co-author of the Resources for the Future study.
While the White House has not publicly committed to following the course urged by environmental groups, the president was not shy about using regulatory powers during his first term and has shown signs of stepping up executive actions this year despite continuing opposition in Congress.
"We know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back," Mr. Obama told The New Republic in a recent interview, although he added that more technological breakthroughs are needed to achieve the most ambitious goals laid down by scientists and environmentalists to eliminate the threat of climate change. Activists want to cut emissions by as much as 80 percent by 2050.
But Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University political scientist, said imposing a strict regulatory regime that raises the intense opposition of business and Republicans in Congress may backfire on Mr. Obama.
"Most professional environmentalists have an overriding faith in regulatory solutions and do not understand that regulation alone will soon falter unless it is sustained by congressional majorities," she said. "If EPA regulations go too far, too fast, backlashes across the country could contribute to what may happen anyway: Democratic loss of control of the Senate in 2014. Many Democratic voters tend to stay home in midterm elections, and many key seats currently held by Democrats are up for grabs."
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