Mike Norman

Obama’s new climate plan likely to be a hot one

Get ready for another political firestorm over federal environmental policy, maybe the hottest one to date.

On Monday, President Obama is scheduled to announce what The New York Times has called “the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and could become one of the defining elements of Mr. Obama’s legacy.”

In Texas, that has “fight” written all over it. Just look at the keywords: Obama, strongest action, climate change.

Not only that, the policy was drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the president is expected to push new standards based on his executive authority rather that proposing laws to be enacted by Congress.

The announcement has been anticipated for months, but it’s likely to spark a lot of knee-jerk opposition in the Lone Star State as another example of government overreach and Obama’s inability to do anything right.

But just as so many Texas political figures have shaped their public persona around fighting everything the president does and many things he doesn’t, there is also reason to believe the state has unique advantages that could make the new policy work and benefit Texans.

Obama will announce the second part of a two-part policy regulating carbon emissions from power plants. The first part, focused on new plants, has been formally adopted.

Monday’s announcement will deal with emissions from existing plants. Advance word on the plan is that Obama will call for a 20 percent reduction. That’s a lot.

But Texas has a lot of coal-fired power plants, the worst emitters of carbon dioxide.

The state also has abundant supplies of cleaner-burning, cheap natural gas, which has become the new fuel of choice for power companies. It has the additional advantage of flexibility, of allowing plants to be built with smaller units that can be brought on line individually when needed or shut down when they’re not.

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Texas also leads all other states in production of wind energy, with a lot of room to grow that production on open plains and coastal areas. The combination of wind energy and flexible natural gas power plants could be a winner for the state.

Still, the particulars of the expected Obama plan will worry independent-minded Texans. Some other key words will be a big part of that worry: cap and trade.

The Times reported on Thursday that the new policy will set a national limit on carbon emissions from coal plants, then allow each state to come up with its own plan to meet the limit based on a menu of options that include cap and trade.

In essence, these programs set taxes on carbon pollution, then allow buying and selling of government-issued pollution permits.

Obama tried and failed during his first term to push a cap-and-trade program through Congress. Critics will say he’s now using his executive authority to create one through the back door.

Finally, the background of all of this is climate change, a seemingly inexhaustible source of debate about what’s real and what’s imaginary.

The Obama administration is as ready as it can be on that one. This week, the EPA issued the third edition of a report on climate change last updated in 2012.

The report cites data on increases in average temperatures, tropical storm activity, sea-level changes, glacier melt, drought and wildfires. In short, everything we’ve been arguing about on this topic for a decade or so.

Don’t expect Obama to back down. Don’t expect anything different from his strongest critics and the politicians who turn his policies into fuel for partisan fires.

But around the edges, let’s hope for some honest debate about what our climate problems really are and how to deal with them.

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