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  June 26, 2013

Obama on Climate Is Mixed Bag of Surprises & Status Quo

Daphne Wysham: President moves in the right direction on carbon emissions and Keystone XL pipeline but disappoints on the promotion of fracking
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Daphne Wysham is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the director of the climate and energy program at the Center for Sustainable Economy (CSE).


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

President Obama delivered a climate change speech on Tuesday at Georgetown University. Many analysts, as well as former vice president Al Gore, are applauding this speech.

Here to discuss some of the highlights is Daphne Wysham. Daphne is the founder and director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network and is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Thank for joining us, Stephanie Daphne.


DESVARIEUX: So, Daphne, let's discuss some of the highlights of this speech. Primarily, let's take a listen at what the president had to say about climate change.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: 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.


DESVARIEUX: So, Daphne, what do you make of the president's plan to reduce carbon emissions?

WYSHAM: We've known for quite some time that he has this target of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. We also know that it bears no resemblance to what the international community agreed to in Kyoto, which was far more ambitious. And so what he's trying to do in this speech is say, look, I'm living up to my promises, we will reach this goal of reducing our emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

But more significant to me than that was that what I saw today was a feisty Obama and an Obama who's not afraid of a fight on coal, on the Keystone XL pipeline, and specifically is willing to take very bold positions when it comes to climate change.

Not everything was positive. He's still very much the fracker-in-chief. He loves to frack his way to a so-called clean-energy future. He's also very much a proponent of nuclear power. And those are two--what I would say, the two single--the two largest negatives in his speech.

But overall I think people were surprised at--well, they--I know they were surprised on the Keystone XL announcement, whereby he basically said, we are now linking our national interest with whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline will significantly increase the net emissions for the planet. And of course they will.

DESVARIEUX: Well, Daphne, let's actually take a listen to what the president had to say about Keystone XL pipeline.


OBAMA: But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.


DESVARIEUX: So, Daphne, what is the significance of relating the Keystone XL pipeline to national interests?

WYSHAM: Well, it's the first time in my memory that a president has linked our national interest to greenhouse gas emissions and a project, a particular project, in this case the very controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, with the issue of climate change. Up until now, the debate has been around jobs--would it increase jobs, would it result in very many jobs--or around energy security. And, of course, on both scores, you could say, well, the jobs would be maybe 35 jobs. On energy security a lot of this is for export. But that's where the focus of the conversation had been, that it was going to increase jobs and it would increase our energy security.

What Obama did today was he pivoted away from those two arguments and said, no, our national interest is now focused on climate change. And if this contributes significantly to the problem, then he will reject it. So that was a surprise. No one was expecting that today. We were waiting to hear from him after the State Department had released its final assessment of the pipeline, and that's not for quite some time. So this signals that he's hearing the protesters and he's paying attention to the criticisms based on the climate science, which is--I would call it a major win for climate activists.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. The president also mentioned that he doesn't plan on stopping the production of fossil fuels, but he did mention that there would be restrictions on coal to reduce carbon emissions. Let's take a listen to what the president had to say.


OBAMA: Today I'm calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas, unless they deploy carbon capture technologies or there's no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity.


DESVARIEUX: Daphne, what's new about the president's proposed plan?

WYSHAM: Well, you know, there isn't a huge amount that's new in terms of, yes, he is moving forward on what is essentially an order from the Supreme Court to restrict CO2 from coal-fired power plants. This signals that he's going to move forward on a faster timeline than people had expected by 2014 to put in place new rules on both new and existing coal-fired power plants. So that's significant.

But the other thing that's really significant that emerged from this speech was that Obama is signaling that he wants to end support for coal, the U.S. government agencies like the U.S. Export Credit--U.S. Export-Import Bank, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and other government agencies that are essentially subsidizing coal and other fossil fuels with our taxpayer dollars.

He also mentioned that he wants to move multilateral development banks like the World Bank away from coal. And this is an issue that the Institute for Policy Studies, where I work, has been working on for, gosh, about 17 years. So we were heartened to hear that if not all fossil fuels, at least what Obama has done is signaled his support for a campaign, global campaign that it has been going on for over 15 years to get these institutions out of coal and eventually out of all fossil fuels.

DESVARIEUX: I'm hearing a lot of the things that you did like about the speech, but you mentioned earlier that there were some disappointments as well. Can you elaborate a little bit about those disappointments?

WYSHAM: Well, as I said earlier, I think, you know, Obama is enamored with natural gas, which is largely--in this country, we get a good share of our natural gas from the process of hydrofracking, which not only results in fugitive methane emissions, which--and, of course, methane is a very potent greenhouse gas--but also contamination of our water supply. And while he did mention in his speech that he wants to better track and restrict methane emissions, the truth of the matter is that with fracking you are going to continue to have fugitive methane emissions, you know, unless there's some new scientific approach of capturing all of these fugitive methane emissions that are coming out from the earth's surface all over around these fracking sites. So that's a concern, that he's signaling that natural gas is the solution to the climate crisis when actually it's a major contributor to the climate crisis.

And in addition, because fracking has become so popular in this country, we are driving--we're making renewable energy, renewable forms of energy like solar and wind less competitive both at home and abroad, and that's not good for those of us who are concerned about a long-term solution to the climate crisis as soon as possible, which is really--I mean, we're running out of time. And although he, you know, suggests this is a bridge fuel, by continuing to exploit fracked natural gas, we're delaying the transition to a truly clean energy future with clean renewable forms of energy, because natural gas is making these forms of energy less competitive economically, both at home and abroad.

DESVARIEUX: Do you see the president actually having the ability to pass any of these rules into law? Can he just have executive orders? Or is he going to have to go through Congress?

WYSHAM: Well, that's what this new phase is all about. Essentially what Obama's announced today is that he's going to be using his executive authority and bypassing Congress on a number of levels.

Now, of course, he can't bypass Congress on everything, you know, for example, fossil fuel subsidies that will have to--that will require the support of Congress. But by pushing forward on these rules under the EPA, he's definitely able to do that, using his executive authority, advancing this goal of getting public agencies to end their support for coal overseas. My understanding is that he is able to do that using an executive authority. And, of course, his signal that the Keystone XL pipeline will not be approved, that's of course up to the State Department. But he's hinting that his State Department will be weighing very strongly the climate impacts of that pipeline. And, you know, again, that's not going to Congress. It's up to State Department and EPA to essentially determine whether or not that pipeline to go forward.

DESVARIEUX: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Daphne.

WYSHAM: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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