Should Alberta fear Obama's latest tough talk on climate?

Luiza Ch. Savage on a story that merits watching closely

Alberta premier Alison Redford was in New York City yesterday making yet another in a series of state-side pitch for the Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was in Berlin, delivering a foreign policy speech in which he described climate change as “the global threat of our time” and promised “bold action” from his administration.

Should Alberta be worried?

Perhaps not.

In a story that merits watching closely,  the New York Times reports that the Obama administration is planning to roll out ambitious new regulations for emissions from existing coal-fired power-plants — “the most consequential climate policy step he could take.”

This is the holy-grail of U.S. climate policy. Electricity-generation accounts for 38% of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions (and 33% of overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), more than any other sector, according to the EPA. Strict regulations of power plants would have a much bigger impact on U.S. emissions than the fate of the pipeline.

There has long been speculation in Washington that Obama would issue some stringent regulations on power plants, and then later okay the cross-border pipeline project. He would be able to show his supporters – many of whom oppose Keystone XL – concrete progress on reducing emissions.

The Times reports that the power plant regulations could be coming very soon:

The administration has already begun steps to restrict climate-altering emissions from any newly built power plants, but imposing carbon standards on the existing utility fleet would be vastly more costly and contentious. The president is preparing to move soon because rules as complex as those applying to power plants can take years to complete. Experts say that if Mr. Obama hopes to have a new set of greenhouse gas standards for utilities in place before he leaves office he needs to begin before the end of this year.  Heather Zichal, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said Wednesday that the president would announce climate policy initiatives in coming weeks. Another official said a presidential address outlining the new policy, which will also include new initiatives on renewable power and energy efficiency, could come as early as next week. Ms. Zichal said none of the initiatives being considered by the administration required legislative action or new financing from Congress.

Meanwhile, a decision on Keystone XL is still months away. In an interview this week, departing U.S. ambassador David Jacobson told me that by his count, the administration won’t make a decision about the pipeline permit until 105 days after the State Department issues a final environmental impact statement. (The most recent environmental report by the State Department found that approving the pipeline would not have significant impact on the development of the oil sands — and by extension, on emissions.) The EPA responded with a critique of that report — rating it “Environmental Objections — Insufficient Information” suggesting a split inside the Obama administration over the project.) Jacobson said that once State issues its final environmental review, the administration would give various federal agencies 90 days to respond, and then would issue the National Interest Determination – essentially a recommendation on whether to permit the project based not only on the environmental factors, but other considerations such as energy security and the impact on relations with Canada. If there remain disagreements among agencies, the issue would be kicked up to the White House to be resolved. If federal agencies were in agreement, then the president would issue the permit.

But it could be that by the time a final decision is made, it’s possible that Obama may have already delivered something even bigger to the environmentalists among his political base.