A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the U.S. Supreme Court had told the Obama administration that the issue of climate change is the administration’s, not the court’s, responsibility. What would Obama do? Well, we just found out.
On September 2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave up trying to reduce the amount of smog in ambient air. Smog is essentially ground-level ozone (O3), and when humans make it it is often the product of chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur oxides (SOx). Both NOx and SOx are produced when you burn fossil fuels like coal or gasoline. The reactions that turn them into O3 occur in the atmosphere, especially in hot and humid conditions.
Burning fossil fuels also produces another substance, carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is essentially what the supreme court, back in June, told the administration to deal with.
I think it’s safe to say that if Obama doesn’t want to get tough on smog, he won’t get tough on CO2 either—they come from the same source. And it’s technologically easier and less expensive to reduce smog-causing emissions of NOx and SOx than it is to reduce CO2.
Why such an about-face by a president who, when he was campaigning for the office in 2008, bent over backwards to assure the green lobby that he would get tough on both smog and CO2?
For exactly the same reason his predecessor, George W. Bush, abandoned America’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol as soon as he became president, in 2001. America is as addicted to coal as it is to oil. Half U.S. electricity comes from coal. If you get environmentally tough with coal-fired power generation, you make electricity more expensive. Make electricity more expensive, and you’ll put people out of work. Bush, for obvious reasons, did not want to lead off his presidency by ruining his country’s economy.
Obama cannot be seen, at this particular point in time, with tens of millions of Americans out of work and in despair, to be watering down the fuel in the already sputtering American economic engine. Hence his abandonment of the EPA smog rule.
Bush’s abandonment of Kyoto didn’t mean he had decided to not do anything about the emissions from coal-fired power plants. Far from it. Bush was the most actively pro-nuclear president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nuclear is the only source that can compete with coal on price, and that comes with zero emissions of NOx, SOx, and CO2.
Obama could take another, more positive step on the job front. The same step would also help the environment. That is to get his Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to stop stonewalling loan guarantees for new nuclear projects. The proponent of a nuclear project that would have, with a stroke of a pen, created around 3,000 high paid jobs building a new Areva EPR in Maryland, walked away from that project when the OMB demanded payment in exchange for loan guarantees. That’s like a bank demanding that you pay a fee up-front before they lend you any money.
By contrast, the OMB has virtually given away similar loan guarantees for solar energy projects. One, for more than half a billion dollars, went to Solyndra, a California-based panel manufacturer. Well, Solyndra just filed for bankruptcy. So while the OMB nickel-and-dimed a nuclear project that would have created thousands of jobs and provided billions of kilowatt-hours of clean, cheap power, it threw money at a solar project that anybody could have predicted would be a total failure.
That has to change, and Obama can change it.