Thursday morning brought a burst of climate-policy pledges from the U.S. and Canada that coincide with new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s state visit.
The two countries are vowing new cooperation on protecting the Arctic, cutting pollution from oil-and-gas production, helping developing nations comply with the Paris climate deal, and more. At the same time, a newly published interview with President Obama in The Atlantic makes clear why Obama is devoting so much attention to climate change as his presidency winds down.
Here are a few takeaways from Obama’s latest fourth-quarter play on global warming:
Elections have consequences, Part 1. The biggest domestic news in the U.S.-Canada pledges is that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to regulate emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, from existing oil and natural-gas projects and infrastructure. That’s a big expansion of EPA’s ongoing development of methane standards for new and modified wells, pumps, compressors, and other infrastructure. But here’s the catch: It’s unlikely that EPA could finish writing the rules for these existing sources by the time Obama leaves office. That highlights the environmental and energy policy stakes of November’s elections. Republican presidential candidates are vowing to scale back EPA’s climate efforts (though energy and climate haven’t been big issues in the GOP race). In contrast, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton—who has been moving left on oil-and-gas regulation—and Bernie Sanders favor tough controls.
Elections have consequences, Part 2. Joint U.S.-Canada work on energy and climate isn’t itself new; the nations have previously collaborated on cutting vehicle emissions and more. But the bilateral climate effort is now on a higher level. Why? Previously, the years-long U.S. refusal to greenlight the Keystone pipeline, a huge priority for the oil-friendly former PM Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, was a giant point of contention. Harper’s ouster last fall that brought the Liberal Trudeau to power has greatly boosted the Canadian government’s focus on climate change, and paved the way for the more ambitious collaboration announced Thursday. Harper “made Keystone XL his top cross-border energy priority, and he let disagreement over that pipeline sour his relationship with President Obama,” notes Merran Smith, executive director of the think tank Clean Energy Canada. “By comparison, the Trudeau government has made it clear that climate change is a top priority, and in this Canada has found a strong ally and supportive counterpart in President Obama.”
Target: oil. The EPA methane announcement—which drew immediate pushback from industry lobbyists—is the latest sign that Obama is taking an increasingly tough stance with the oil-and-gas sector as his presidency winds down. Last fall, he pulled the plug on Arctic Ocean oil-and-gas lease sales slated for 2016 and 2017. Another shoe could drop some time in the coming weeks. That’s when the Interior Department unveils the next draft of its 2017-2022 plan for selling offshore oil-and-gas drilling leases. An initial version last year included the planned sale of Atlantic Ocean drilling rights off the coasts of several Mid- and South-Atlantic states, as well as Arctic Ocean lease sales. But Obama is under pressure from environmentalists to cut those sections when the plan is ultimately finalized.
Lame-duck Obama really has climate change on his mind. These latest actions are the work of a president who is expressing deep concerns about the risks of global warming as he seeks a legacy on the issue. That’s apparent in his new interview in The Atlantic. “As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face,” he said. “If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”
The Wild North shouldn’t be the Wild West. The Obama-Trudeau plans are the latest efforts to ensure that the Arctic, with its melting ice and huge resources, has safeguards and rules in place as nations increasingly eye commercial activities there. Various Arctic-protection plans include a pledge to work on “low impact shipping corridors,” and more broadly, the two countries vow to craft a “shared and science-based standard” for weighing the impact of commercial activities in the region.
Breathing life into Paris. The sweeping global climate deal reached in December is ambitious, but it also rests largely on the voluntary domestic pledges (called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs) of countries worldwide. The new U.S.-Canada bilateral efforts announced Thursday show that Obama and his counterpart are trying to ensure the Paris climate agreement actually takes flight. Several provisions address Paris, like this one: “Canada and the U.S. will work with developing country partners to assist in implementation of their INDCs and strengthening their adaptation efforts.” The White House, of course, has its own climate troubles at home now that the Supreme Court has frozen Obama’s sweeping carbon-emissions rules for power plants. That’s a big problem, in part because the rules are among the policies underlying the White House pledge in Paris to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But the newly announced methane rules are part of a wider White House effort to show that it’s employing a wide array of policies to keep its Paris promises.
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