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      Obama Endorses Global Green Energy, Divestment from Polluters

      President Barack Obama speaks steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions during a June 25 speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Charles Dharapak)

      In one of his most significant policy proposals, President Barack Obama committed his administration to global leadership against severe climate change, and strongly implied that the Keystone XL pipeline will be rejected, and seemed to endorse the growing movement to divest from polluting energy corporations.

      On the Keystone XL controversy, Obama carefully sided with environmentalists by saying that any permit decision will depend on whether the “net impacts” of the pipeline project  “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

      While a decision by the State Department is still pending, several environmental reviews already have determined that the Canadian-based project will have such adverse effects. Using the criteria of “net impacts” widens the scope of review to include emissions all the way from excavating the Canadian tar sands to the impacts on aquifers and farmland soils along the entire stretch of the projected project. While environmental scientists will have to argue their case before John Kerry’s State Department, the Obama criteria seems to tilt the case in their favor. To approve the project after the president’s speech would undermine its essence and purpose. 

      While Obama’s phrasing on Keystone XL will be the most carefully parsed, his most dramatic sentence was only one word long: “Divest.”

      “Divest,” Obama said toward the end of his remarks, implicitly endorsing the environmental movement’s goal of pushing universities and other institutions into divesting their holdings in fossil fuel corporations. Obama is deeply familiar with divestment campaigns ever since his first political speech, at Occidental College on February 18, 1981, against pension investments in South African apartheid. Obama’s exact call to his young audience at Georgetown was, “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.”

      The line was a response to the demands of 350 in particular, which has promised massive civil disobedience if Obama approves the pipeline. 

      The most important policy content of the speech was Obama’s order 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.” Those standards, based on his authority under the Clean Air Act, will be bitterly contested and possibly delayed by the Fossil Fuel Lobby at every level. Currently, the president pointed out, there are no federal limits on carbon emissions pumped into the air from power plants. The coming Obama orders may be sufficient to prevent any new coal-fired power plants and gradually wind down existing ones, which has been a huge priority of the Sierra Club, and incidentally, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

      In addition, Obama ordered a dramatic increase in the use of green energy, doubling once more the doubling he already has achieved in the deployment of wind and solar energy, this time by sharp increases in Pentagon procurement and installations on public lands. Also the administration will set tougher energy efficiency standards for appliances, and support massive mitigation measures to protect farmlands, population centers and coastal areas from extreme storm and drought conditions. 

      Finally, Obama will renew his global effort to spur the campaign against global warming. His recent summit with the Chinese leadership yielded an important agreement to phase out dangerous hydrofluorocarbons. China’s participation in conservation efforts is considered essential if only to neutralize the conservative argument that the Chinese gain a competitive economic advantage by avoiding environmental costs. 

      Questions still remain about parts of the Obama program, including his avoidance of a definitive position on fracking, his nebulous concept of a global free trade agreement for renewables, and his endorsement of two new nuclear plants being sited in Georgia and South Carolina. Obama still clings to the notion that natural gas, with fracking, can be a “bridging fuel” to renewable resources – a position which I took in 1980, based on then-existing knowledge. 

      Obama is unlikely to retreat, at least in rhetoric, from his “all-of-the-above” energy platform, but this speech moves his commitment in the direction of conservation-and-renewables more than ever before. As a second-term incumbent he may be more interesting in legacy than yielding to the powerful coal industry’s agenda. Whatever progress Obama makes in spite of Congressional opposition could lock the two political parties into a gradual energy Armageddon.

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      Reader Comments (3)

      I have no problem with what the president endorses. But the "elephant in the room" is the population problem. As we desperately attempt to increase the food supply in our country and elsewhere, the world population will keep increasing and contribute to global warming. It is a treadmill and there is no end in sight until we run out of food (and shelter, etc.). This is something that every biologist understands!
      Retired Prof. of Biology

      June 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Huber

      Truth and trust apparently have the same root. Can we ever trust this man (Obama) who has spoken well so often but acted so badly? Clever and pretty word soothe the gullible, but haven't we learned yet not to be so gullible? Rather, "I'll believe it when I see it," seems a much more appropriate response. Look at what he has done regarding the matter of pledged administration "transparency" for instance, while aggressively punishing true whistle-blowers who document governmental evil doing. And so much more!

      June 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJon

      Tom, you're more confidant than I on Obama's intentions on rejecting the XL pipeline. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess.

      June 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStevin Cohen
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