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Climate Change Action and More Drilling Likely in Obama’s Second Term

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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obamas-hugPresident Barack Obama secured a second four-year term in yesterday’s vote. What is the likely outcome of that historic event on energy and environmental issues? Simply put: more of the same.

Let me rephrase that slightly. Obama will likely stay the course on his current energy and environmental policies. That means more executive orders like the one that raised vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and continued progress on regulatory efforts to restrain greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution from coal-fired power plants. As market watchers noted last night: coal company stocks plummeted as the election results became clear, while solar companies soared.

That’s because, even if Nobel Prize-winning Secretary of Energy Steven Chu leaves the administration, as has been rumored, innovative programs such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy will continue to attempt to invent a future of cleaner energy. And the Department of Energy as a whole will continue to push forward with its “all of the above” energy strategy, which will encourage the rise of shale gas but also continue federal support such as tax credits and loan guarantees for big alternative energy projects, from solar power to nuclear.

Both energy and environment merited brief mentions in Obama’s victory speech. He spoke of “freeing ourselves from foreign oil,” a dream of every American president since Richard Nixon. That will mean more oil and gas drilling in the U.S., perhaps more responsibly done on public lands than what Mitt Romney promised. Already, U.S. oil production is on the rise, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and imports have fallen below 45 percent for the first time in more than 30 years. Major government oil users, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, will also likely continue their bid to promote alternative fuels, such as jet fuel made from biomoass (plants) or natural gas.

Obama defeated Romney in large part due to a coalition of the young, women and minorities such as blacks and Hispanics. All will be owed action on key issues: immigration reform, holding the line on reproductive rights and, yes, some kind of action on climate change. After all, a second term means the Obama administration will have to carry out U.S. commitments made in climate talks at Copenhagen and Durban to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to craft a global agreement by 2015 to combat climate change. “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” Obama said—a key reason he earned the endorsement of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the wake of global warming-exacerbated Superstorm Sandy. The mention of a “warming planet” was a departure from Obama’s silence on climate change throughout the campaign.

One idea to reduce the debt burden *and* combat climate change is known simply as a carbon tax. Many versions of the idea exist but all boil down to a tax placed on fossil fuels based on the greenhouse gases emitted when they are burned. Such a tax could ensure reductions in the CO2 emissions causing climate change, spur innovative energy technologies ranging from CO2 capture and storage to geothermal power, and help balance the budget while potentially reducing other taxes.

But Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives makes such a tax seem unlikely. That means the biggest chance to reduce U.S. emissions—a process already under way—remains turning off old coal-fired power plants and replacing them with new ones that burn natural gas, a switch that is already occurring thanks to low prices for the gaseous fossil fuel as a result of fracking.

Obama’s second term may not slow the rise of the oceans or begin the healing of the planet—as predicted in an earlier victory speech—but it will give the two-term president a chance to secure his legacy as one of the greenest chief executives in U.S. history. That may include ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry or even putting more solar panels on the White House like former President Jimmy Carter did, as promised. At the very least, it should include talking more about the defining energy and environmental challenge facing the United States according to President Obama: climate change.

Image: Tweeted by President Barack Obama (@barackobama)


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 3:04 pm 11/7/2012

    One of the interesting questions in a discussion/debate of the climate is when the discussion gets down to the specific actions being recommended for implementation and what those ideas will accomplish. Many of those uneducated with the science like to call people deniers when their suggested approaches are not fully agreed with, but how about a realistic assessment of the merits of alternative government policies for the US for the future.

    One of the most critical issues is to answer what will or would be the result of taking what is described as climate mitigation actions? Will the future weather be impacted in what is deemed a positive manner and positive for whom? When would this happen?

    Imo, it is inevitable that worldwide CO2 levels will continue to rise for at least the next several decades regardless of US actions. The growth in worldwide emissions will happen regardless of US or EU actions. Will it matter if CO2 is at 460 ppm or 470 ppm by 2060? Will there be a difference in the weather as a result? Isn’t it smarter to use our limited resources to invest in better infrastructure to minimize the damage from future bad weather? Aren’t countries that invest in building robust infrastructure going to be the best prepared to thrive regardless of the weather?

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 3:48 pm 11/7/2012

    This article is based on what exactly? Speculation.

    Sorry, those minorities, mothers, etc. have climate change issues so far down the list of priorities to be meaningless. Go back and lok at the Kyoto Ptotocol, a somewhat modest package…under CLINTON, a Democrat president…not one senator supported it and only 3 Congressmen. Hint..Obama is not a dictator and get zip other than lip service through a Republican Congress.

    The devil is in the details. Folks in Ohio didn’t go Demo to have their factories shutdown , fuel prices increased, more of their taxes going as carbon transfers tinpot dictators in basketcase countries.

    The author is confusing what he ‘wants’ with reality.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 4:03 pm 11/7/2012

    President Obama does not actually think the US can be free of foreign oil. We are happy to get oil from Canada and Mexico. Being free of OPEC oil is what he is really talking about and no one has laid out a realistic plan for that. The US is using about 18.8 million barrels per day (MBD) and we are producing about 6.7 MBD so we must make up the difference with that filthy mess that comes from Canada and imports from OPEC nations. Mexico has been using most of their own oil with very little leftover for export. Optimistic predictions are that in about 5 to 10 years we might be able to produce 9 to 10 MBD, still short of our current need. It is not clear if the new fuel standards coupled with hybrid and electric vehicle sales, will keep our consumption near the 19 MBD mark in the next 5 to 10 years. It seems clear that the US will always need to import oil. All this talk about freedom from foreign oil is intended to make the ignorant US public feel happy. The same ignorant public that thinks freedom from foreign oil will have any influence on oil prices. The same ignorant public that thinks any president has control over gasoline prices. Considering how much Americans seem to love their cars and considering how much oil the US consumes and considering how may times the US has suffered a gasoline crisis, you might think we would be experts on exactly what influences crude oil prices and gasoline prices. I wish President Obama would not pander to the ignorant with useless slogans…like when he talks about clean coal.

    And no, he won’t be able to heal the planet or slow sea level rise. He can’t even heal the Gulf of Mexico. We haven’t healed Prince William Sound after all these years. Maybe he can keep Big Oil out of ANWR and maybe he can stop the environmental destruction of our National Parks like the Grand Canyon. Maybe he can ensure the new fuel standards go into effect and maybe he can continue advancing wind and solar.

    Say, David, since coal plants are not necessarily located near geologic formations suitable to hold CO2 for the capture and storage thing, I wonder how much it will cost to build the pipelines, compress the gas, and ship it to suitable locations. That’s another massively expensive fantasy that will never happen.

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  4. 4. nickweilbach 9:22 am 11/8/2012

    I really wish Obama would put the solar panels back on the White House. What a message that would send!

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  5. 5. Quantumburrito 1:58 pm 11/8/2012

    Given the fact that there was hardly a single squeak about climate change in the campaigns and the presidential debates, I doubt that Obama will do much about it. The problem is that people care far less about it now than they did in 2008.

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  6. 6. jadamone 8:18 pm 11/8/2012

    The USGS recently made a statement to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology titled “Unconventional Oil and Gas Production: Opportunities and Challenges of Oil Shale Development”, . This statement is about the Green River Formation which is largely on PUBLIC LAND. I assume that the taxpayers of all the states have a share in the potential 3 TRILLION BARRELS of oil there. I see no real difference between our technical ability to develop this shale oil and what we are currently doing to develop the Ohio Utica and Marcellus shale oil, or the shale oil in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, .

    However, the Obama Administration and most Democrats would be against developing this resource for many FOOLISH REASONS. Obviously we are not going to junk all of the hundreds of millions of petroleum powered vehicles we use any time soon. The government could spend part of this oil money to have US companies develop INEXPENSIVE electric vehicles for its fleets. Then the public would follow suite and buy them.

    If the Federal Government created a Terrorism Wartime Manhattan Style project to develop US shale oil deposits on largely vacant federal lands we would soon be totally independent of OPEC oil, millions of new jobs would be created, our economy and tax revenues would greatly expand, and Iran and our Arab enemies would have to find a new source of revenue to use to buy communist weapons. We could even pay off the National Debt that Obama expanded so greatly and create a Social Security Trust Fund with something other than government IOUs.

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  7. 7. greenhome123 9:51 pm 11/8/2012

    You lead by example, not by whining about how if you do something good, other people are still going to be doing bad. That is why it is so important that the US implement a carbon tax, and for Obama to put solar panels back on the White House. It makes a statement to the world that we care about the future of our planet. The carbon tax will motivate people to become more energy efficient, increase revenue, and decrease pollution. And, I believe the revenue generated from the carbon tax should go towards improving our infrastructure and electrical grid. P.S. I am less concerned about global warming and more concerned about air and water pollution. I don’t want our grandchildren living in a world where it is necessary to distill tap water, or wear breathing masks when outside.

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 4:06 am 11/9/2012

    Easy to reduce petroleum consumption. Make electric trains & cars, natural gas trucks & buses, ban big engine cars, 750cc engine will do. You don’t need 200 hp. 25 hp is enough for city driving. Or 50 cc motorbike. Or best a bicycle.

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  9. 9. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 7:52 am 11/9/2012

    First two comments: denialist trolls. Sisko/pokerplayer, why do you insist on messing with real scientists? Remember how Trent1492 disassembled you?

    Dr. Strangelove: Or just put solar cells on the roofs of every building, make everything electric, and institute a two-child policy to keep the population down.

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  10. 10. ochar 9:44 am 11/9/2012

    This is the real solution: OCEANOGENIC POWER. Clean, abundant, cheap and renewable.

    And as insinuate, Hollywood movies, violent fanatics who love wars; therefore, antagonists of creativity; and they need carbon and radioactive materials for their weapons, they’re chasing me in Panama, with direct orders to their creoles franchises; more fanatics that their world leaders.

    Panama can not consume all this energy; is former partner of USA, and
    is at the same distance, that current hydroelectric, largest in the world, have, to their respective markets.

    Much better: superconducting lines, which can be terrestrial or submarine, and the latter can be cryo-cooled, from offshore platforms, floating or submerged, are more efficient to highest electrical power

    Allows distill in place, all that a country, neighborhood and home requires: fresh water, and clean or dirty fuel.

    Allows a peaceful transition to a new infrastructure and economic system friendlier to life and our planet.

    To top it off, the oceanogenic power, as any hydropower, at least, in the tropics, the abundance of vegetation, produce methane super cheap (200 times cheaper than shale gas) at the outputs of hydraulic turbines; although quite similar to hydrogen and oxygen, we must solve the problem of storage and transportation.

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  11. 11. Shane 1:03 pm 11/9/2012

    His energy policy will be a tax on the poor. The people who voted for him will blame the energy companies, but they fail to understand that any cost passed on to the company is passed directly on to the consumer. The poor will get hammered the hardest as energy prices rise not because of a lack of resources, but the restrictions that are applied. Congrats America, you get what you vote for.

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  12. 12. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:50 pm 11/9/2012

    “”"His energy policy will be a tax on the poor. The people who voted for him will blame the energy companies, but they fail to understand that any cost passed on to the company is passed directly on to the consumer. The poor will get hammered the hardest as energy prices rise not because of a lack of resources, but the restrictions that are applied. Congrats America, you get what you vote for.”"”

    Sore loser who bought all of the Romney lies? I’d be sorry for you, but I’m an Obama fan. I’m polite enough not to gloat, though.

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  13. 13. jadamone 4:26 pm 11/9/2012

    Lets talk about reality.

    Change costs money and the USA is currently borrowing over a trillion dollars a year to finance its welfare state. Taking everything from rich J–s will not provide enough revenue to pay for your GREEN ENERGY dream. However the shale oil on OUR government lands is worth far more than $100 TRILLION dollars. Currently we continue to pay TRILLIONS for oil to OPEC countries who have declared war on us and they will use that money to buy modern weapons from our old Communist enemies. Since we can not replace the TRILLIONS of dollars of petroleum powered engines that currently allow OUR SOCIETY to exist the only rational choice is obvious.

    We must START TO DEVELOP OUR SHALE OIL DEPOSITS on government land. This will bankrupt our enemies and finance a GREEN REVOLUTION and CHANGE.

    Nobody needs to get hurt and EVERYONE could benefit, including our foolish enemies who could become our friends.

    Replacing 24/7 coal powered electric generation to the known 24/7 GREEN ALTERNATIVES, designing RELIABLE electric replacements for internal combustion engines, building the hundreds of millions of electric engines and batteries needed, and creating a SMART ELECTRIC GRID to RELIABLY power this GREEN ECONOMY will take decades and cost many TRILLIONS of dollars.

    Socialist dreams have only lead to Communist and Fascist nightmares. Our Free Enterprise System is the way to use FOSSIL FUEL to build a GREEN FUTURE.

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  14. 14. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:53 pm 11/9/2012

    I won’t even bother with your obvious right-wing lies and ludicrous “welfare state” comments. Speaking as a socialist, Obama is a Reagan moderate.

    Here’s all I need to say: We run out of oil in 2030 at the current rate of consumption, and we run out of coal somewhere around 2060 (again, assuming that the population doesn’t rise and that the oil holds out until then, which it won’t). Accounting for population and other factors, oil goes in about 2028, and coal goes by 2040.

    Furthermore, fascism is far-right. Communists and socialists loathe fascists. Free enterprise gave us JP Morgan, Leland Stanford, and Standard Oil. By extension, you are FOS and “free enterprise” is the road to a plutocratic hell. If you’ve read “The Iron Heel”, you’ll know what I mean.

    Finally, going back to pre-Reagan tax codes, when the über-rich paid tax rates of up to 94%, will absolutely pay off the national debt in ten years while stimulating the economy. I, personally, wholeheartedly support income redistribution. Let David Segeal be homeless for a few months, then put him on the welfare he hates. Cut Sheldon Adelson and his Chinese Mafia pals down to size. Put the Koch brothers in slums. They all deserve it. There are few things I hate more than arrogant rich plutocrats.

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  15. 15. Na g n o s t ic 5:30 am 11/10/2012

    Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek – rant much?

    Your prediction about us running out of fossil fuels in a couple of decades or so made me laugh and laugh.
    People such as you have been predicting the same thing for almost 100 years. During the 1970′s it was said we’d be out by 1990.

    Your hatred of rich people is amusing too. You should don a Mao suit and harangue passersby from a street corner. Such a funny person you are.

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  16. 16. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 7:21 am 11/10/2012

    Nagnostic, if you don’t hate Donald Trump and the Koch brothers and their crooked politics (Citizens United essentially legalizes vote buying and Dick Cheney tactics, by the way), then you are most likely über-rich yourself.

    The oil runs out in 2030. There is much evidence to back me up. If you haven’t done your homework, that’s not my problem.

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  17. 17. Deegeejay333 7:47 am 11/10/2012

    These are sad times for science, energy policy, and the United States. We needed a pro science president in the worst way but emotion triumphed instead.

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  18. 18. sofistek 2:07 am 11/11/2012

    The decline of fossil fuels, particularly oil, has already begun and those who dream of otherwise just need to check the facts of what is actually being counted as oil these days, what energy it takes to extract it or process it and what end products are made from it. Cheap, high quality crude oil is not on the increase. The US will never become energy independent until it reduces its energy consumption vastly below what it currently is and keeps it there. The same applies to most of the rest of the world.

    Obama will do nothing significant on climate change. Weak, vague and non-binding commitments to reductions are nowhere near what the science says is needed to grasp the now slim chance of limiting warming to even 2 degrees celcius (though that is a political target, not a scientific one, which would be closer to 1 degree with current knowledge).

    So, yes, it will likely be more of the same – pretty ineffective leadership on these issues. But then most politicians, like most economists, think the economy is a superset of the planet and have largely abandoned science where it conflicts with corporate goals.

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  19. 19. IslandGardener 4:57 pm 11/12/2012

    In response to Sisko’s
    ‘Isn’t it smarter to use our limited resources to invest in better infrastructure to minimize the damage from future bad weather?’
    ‘Aren’t countries that invest in building robust infrastructure going to be the best prepared to thrive regardless of the weather?’:

    If you in the USA don’t do what you can to slow down climate change then you’ll spend far more money in the long run. How much will it cost you to keep repairing the kind of damage caused by Katrina or Sandy, or to import food if more droughts hit your cornbelt?

    (And what’s all this about your ‘limited resources’? I’d usually agree with such a phrase – the Earth is finite and has limited resources – but the way you use the phrase implies that the USA has hardly any resources at all. But relative to other countries the USA has some of the biggest resources on the planet. If you can’t do it, who can?)

    Here in Britain even an economist like Nicholas Stern understands that a stitch in time saves nine. I don’t agree with all the assumptions which underlie the Stern Review
    but the basic conclusions are right, including, for example:
    ‘The benefits of strong, early action considerably outweigh the costs.
    Unabated climate change could cost the world at least 5% of GDP each year; if more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could be more than 20% of GDP.
    The cost of reducing emissions could be limited to around 1% of global GDP…’

    And wouldn’t it be great if commentators on this issue weren’t just concerned that their country should do well?
    What about some sense of global responsibility, that we’re all citizens of the one and only place in the universe where human beings can live?

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  20. 20. IslandGardener 5:06 pm 11/12/2012

    In response to Shane, Jadamone and Nagnostic:
    I may not always like the way Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek puts things, but I think he’s right, not just on the issue of climate change but on making sure that the richest people contribute more.
    It seems weird to me to claim that doing something about climate change will be worst for the poor. It’s poor people who are already suffering most from climate change. Climate change means more risk of droughts and starvation, more risk of floods and drowning, more risk of pests and diseases.
    And the obscene unfairness of it all is that it’s the luxuries of rich people like Donald Trump which cause far more than the average person’s greenhouse gas emissions – but their wealth then insulates them from the consequences of their actions. To restore some kind of moral balance it’s essential that the richest people pay more.
    Just because I say that it doesn’t mean I hate rich people. It means I hate injustice.

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