The Magazine

The Climate Circus Leaves Town

As traditional energy sources go from doom and gloom to boom.

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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And that process just got a bit slower. Last year the EPA announced a draft of “new performance standards” for power plant greenhouse gas emissions that would have the practical effect of making it impossible to build new coal-fired power plants, except with unproven and uneconomical carbon sequestration technology. Only natural gas plants could meet the new standard. The EPA was supposed to finalize the rule a week ago, but withdrew it at the last minute, probably because the proposed rule was unlikely to survive a legal challenge. The EPA has solid legal ground to develop greenhouse gas regulations (unfortunately), but an arbitrary anti-coal rule might have been tossed out in court just about the time a new president arrives in town four years from now​​—​​perhaps a Republican who would scupper the whole thing. The EPA has not announced a timetable for a revised rule, but the new EPA administrator-designate, the true-believing Gina McCarthy, will no doubt push hard for aggressive regulations. The EPA is already talking about tough new performance standards for existing coal plants over the next 18 months.

The most high profile energy controversy remains the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama punted on a decision before the election, and now that the State Department’s latest environmental review gave the project a thumbs up, he’s in a difficult political spot. If he okays the pipeline, his vocal environmental supporters, such as Tom Steyer, the anti-Keystone San Francisco billionaire who hosted a fundraiser for the president two weeks ago, will go berserk. But the business community, organized labor, a solid Senate majority, and, according to polls, a solid majority of the public, favor Keystone. The Canadian government, after observing a cautious stance of staying out of domestic American politics, has started making unusual public noises that a denial of Keystone will strain relations. Obama can’t vote “present” on Keystone forever.

What he may do is tentatively approve Keystone along with a major policy shift that will please environmentalists and subject Keystone to further and perhaps fatal delays. There is talk that the administration may expand the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to require that proposed projects like Keystone document their impact on global warming in the permit approval process. It would be a bonanza for environmental lawyers, who would have new grounds for filing lawsuits to challenge the adequacy of environmental impact statements. Activists have implicated global warming in everything from AIDS to zoonotic diseases (see The Warmlist,, for a complete dossier), so environmental impact statements could become multivolume affairs with endless court challenges and costly “mitigation” steps required for permits.

While this might thrill environmentalists, it risks a major backlash. The problem with environmental statutes such as NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act is that taken literally they could prohibit almost all human activity. Environmental regulation has always been subject to realistic political constraints, though regulators strain at the leash to see how much they can get away with. This slow, insidious process tends to go on regardless of which party occupies the White House. But an overreach by Obama could finally prompt Congress to consider revising the basic statutes that give regulators so much leeway. The landmark environmental statutes of the 1970s have been politically sacrosanct, but red state Democrats would surely not be fond of a dramatic expansion of environmental regulation.

The final unexpected aspect of the global hydrocarbon renaissance is that it is starting to cause a few environmentalists to have second thoughts about .  .  . nuclear power. For nearly 30 years nuclear power was the only form of energy environmentalists despised more than hydrocarbons. But even with Japan’s nuclear power plant disaster of 2011, some environmentalists have come to see a positive tradeoff of nuclear power over coal and natural gas. James Hansen recently co-authored a paper concluding that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives over coal and gas-fired alternative electricity sources since 1970, and will prevent 7 million deaths by midcentury if it supplants a significant portion of fossil fuel electricity. In June a new documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, will feature prominent environmentalists, such as Stewart Brand, who have changed their mind on nuclear power. The film was screened to good reviews at the most recent Sundance Film Festival; apparently the resolutely anti-nuke host, Robert Redford, hadn’t noticed it on the program. But there’s a lot the old fossils of environmentalism don’t notice these days, starting with the dead-end road they’ve hit.

Steven F. Hayward is the Thomas Smith fellow at the Ashbrook Center, and the William Simon distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

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