White House Unveils Comprehensive Climate Plan

by Cozen O'Connor

On June 25, 2013, President Obama announced a comprehensive climate plan that White House officials say will enable the United States to meet its goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The president set this national goal in December 2009.

The president laid out his vision for reducing GHG emissions during a speech at Georgetown University. The White House also released an outline of the full plan, available here. The three main components of the plan are (1) using the president’s executive powers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants; (2) increasing spending for climate mitigation and adaptation projects; and (3) expanding international efforts to address climate change. Within these three areas, the Climate Action Plan includes new and existing initiatives that span a wide range of policy areas.

While the administration still supports national climate legislation, it is unlikely that the White House will be able to pass aggressive climate legislation in the Republican controlled House of Representatives. The president’s Climate Action Plan has already been criticized by some Republicans opposed to the president’s climate initiatives, and has also drawn some criticism from environmentalists who believe that the Climate Action Plan does not contain enough new programming and is not aggressive enough to fully address the challenges posed by climate change.

Summary of the Climate Action Plan’s Key Initiatives

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions

One of the most ambitious and controversial elements of the president’s Climate Action Plan is the announcement that he will direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish carbon pollution (emissions) standards for existing power plants.

The EPA must propose rules limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants by June 2014, with an expected completion by June 2015.

The EPA was previously directed to establish carbon pollution standards for new power plants in April 2012, following a court order requiring the administration to do so. The proposed emissions standard for new power plants, which restricts carbon releases to no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour, would essentially prohibit the construction of large coal-fired power plants since new coal plants cannot achieve that level of carbon emissions without carbon sequestration. The president has required the EPA to submit an updated proposal for this rule by September 20, 2013.

Both power plant rules are expected to run into political and legal hurdles before they are finalized.

The Climate Action Plan also proposes to decrease carbon emissions by increasing renewable energy. The president directed the Department of the Interior to permit 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020, the Department of Defense will deploy three gigawatts of renewable energy on military installations by 2025, and federal agencies are attempting to attain 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity across the nation’s federally funded subsidized housing stock by 2020. The federal government is also raising a goal to consume 7.5 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020 to 20 percent.

Furthermore, the Climate Action Plan includes increased funding for clean energy technology. The plan includes $8 billion for a Department of Energy loan guarantee program for advanced fossil energy projects that will support efforts such as carbon sequestration. A final solicitation for loans under the program is expected by the fall of 2013.

The president also targeted fuel economy standards and transportation technology. The White House will attempt to develop post-2018 fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, although it should be noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can only to set fuel economy standards for five years at a time. Various cabinet agencies are also working together to create a Renewable Fuels Standard, which will require a certain percentage of America’s transportation fuels to be obtained from renewable resources.

On the energy efficiency front, the Climate Action Plan calls for new appliance efficiency standards and an expansion of the Department of Agriculture’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, which provides funds to rural utilities to finance energy efficiency investments. The plan also calls for increases in building efficiency, although no details are given beyond a possible expansion to the Better Buildings Challenge program, which is attempting to achieve a 20 percent increase in U.S. building energy efficiency by 2020.

Lastly, the carbon reduction plan calls for lowering methane emissions and expanding the federal government’s role as a leader in energy efficiency.

Climate Mitigation and Adaptation

The Climate Action Plan recognizes that climate change will have an impact on infrastructure. The plan directs federal agencies to assist and support state and local governments with identifying at-risk infrastructure and planning to meet projected future needs, and will establish a short-term task force of state, local and tribal officials to advise the federal government on local needs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology will convene a panel to study and develop guidelines for resilient and safe buildings and infrastructure. Areas affected by Hurricane Sandy will also benefit from a rebuilding strategy, to be released by a presidential task force. Moreover, the president’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget includes $200 million for coastal infrastructure projects to improve resiliency.

Federal agencies will also be releasing individual reports on climate change’s effects on various sectors of the economy, such as health, transportation and insurance. Agencies have also been tasked with identifying how climate change is expected to affect natural resources, such as land, water and agriculture.

International Efforts

The Obama administration will continue international efforts to address climate change. The Climate Action Plan highlights the president’s current efforts with the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change, whose participants account for approximately 75 percent of the world’s GHG emissions, as well as current bilateral ongoing negotiations with nations including China, India and Brazil.

The president also pledged to work through international organizations and frameworks, such as the United Nations, to eliminate short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons, and to slow and reverse deforestation, increase energy efficiency, and develop international carbon protocols.


The Climate Action Plan contains both new and ongoing programs intended to increase energy efficiency in the United States and reduce GHG emissions. The central goal of the plan is to enable the United States to meet its goal of reducing GHG emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. However, the most aggressive of the president’s new initiatives, such as new pollutant rules for existing power plants, are likely to face political and legal challenges, which could delay implementation.

Nevertheless, given the current political climate in the United States, and the fact that the international community has not made significant progress in negotiating international carbon protocols, the Climate Action Plan represents a pragmatic approach to decreasing U.S. carbon emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change.



DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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