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Energy adviser Heather Zichal – like others before her – fails to deliver any concrete details of the president’s plans for action
It’s been 114 days since Barack Obama promised on the night of his re-election to protect future generations from – in his words – “the destructive power of a warming planet”. It’s been 38 days since he renewed and expanded on that promise on inauguration day, 16 days since he told Congress straight up in his State of the Union address: act on climate change or I will.
But when it comes to spelling out the actions Obama intends to take on climate change, exactly how he intends to use his executive power, it’s been a very slow reveal.
The White House energy and climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, failed during a talk at a Washington thinktank this week to provide specifics on the kinds of actions – or the time frame – Obama has in mind for dealing with what he has repeatedly described as an urgent problem.
If anything, Zichal, like other White House officials pressed for details of the president’s climate strategy, moved to squash expectations raised by those very same speeches that Obama would indeed take ambitious action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change.
Zichal, when pressed on the time line of Obama’s State of the Union ultimatum, seemed to suggest the president might be willing to sit out the two years of this newly elected Congress before making good on his threat to use his executive powers.
Environmental groups have been urging Obama to draft new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Electric power plants produce about 40% of America’s carbon dioxide emissions; they are the leading driver of climate change in the country.
Campaigners say Obama could cut those power plant emissions by 25% by the end of the decade without big price spikes for consumers, by directing the Environmental Protection Agency to limit those emissions under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. That would go a long way to fulfilling Obama’s first term promise to cut emissions 17% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
The environmental groups point out Obama also has a legal obligation to act. The supreme court ruled six years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency had a duty to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The EPA proposed new rules last year for new power plants.
But Zichal in her talk to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, damped down anticipation the EPA would move on existing coal-fired power plants any time soon. “We can’t put the cart before the horse,” she said.
“The EPA is finalising the standards of new coal-fired power plants. We received more than 2 million comments on that proposal and the agency is in the process of assessing those comments.”
It’s possible, as some suggested, that this was a very clever feint by Zichal to reassure the electricity industry and Republicans in Congress before the administration fills out its second term cabinet.
The White House would naturally want to avoid an all-out fight to defeat Obama’s nominee to be the next administrator of the EPA. The current favourite appears to be Gina McCarthy, an assistant administrator.
And there have been reports that the White House has been consulting widely with environmental groups since Obama’s re-election to come up with a clear climate strategy.
But Zichal seemed intent on downplaying the possibility Obama would use the most powerful instrument at his disposal: the EPA.
“It would be wrong to fall into the trap that one tool is going to get us to the 17% target or get us all the way where we need to be,” she said.
“In these days in Washington it is thought that the EPA and its authority is a bright shining object, but it is also important that we continue to address and move forward many of the initiatives that we already started in the first term,” Zichal said. These included the new fuel efficiency standards for cars, and funding for renewable sources of energy, she went on.
“This administration as a whole has demonstrated time and time again its ability to think creatively about our existing authorities and use them. We have done some very big bold things with the Clean Air Act, a lot of things people didn’t think would be possible,” Zichal said.
What’s not clear however is what Obama will do next – or whether he will expand the bold rhetoric of his recent speeches on climate change into bold action.
A transformation of America’s electricity generation is already under way, with coal-fired power plants shutting down or replaced by cheaper, and relatively cleaner natural gas. As the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put it in a speech to an energy summit near Washington this week: “Coal is a dead man walking.”
With the natural gas boom, with rising public concern about drought and extreme storms, this could be Obama’s moment to act on climate change. But only if the White House is ready to take advantage of it.
Victorious miners return to work after striking for seven weeks
Miners throughout the country will start reporting for work at 6am on Monday after the 96 per cent support for the revised Wilberforce recommendations announced in the ballot by the National Union of Mineworkers yesterday.
There was an immediate cheery reaction. Some miners returned to work to carry out safety duties, and the Government, which has been blowing hot and cold about the effects of power cuts, declared that the country might be back to normal within a fortnight. This statement was entrusted to Lord Jellicoe, the Minister appointed by Mr Heath to coordinate the recovery effort.
None of the country’s 269 collieries will be closed on Monday as a result of the strike. Twenty-two coal faces out of a total of 1,000 have been lost, a small number considering that the strike has lasted seven weeks. Even the National Coal Board admits that 11 were in a very poor condition before the strike began. The Central Electricity Generating Board reacted with pleasure to the miners’ decision, and a spokesman declared that its power recovery operation was going extremely well, “far better than we dared to hope.” The power stations might be able to get back to normal more quickly than anticipated.
Ironically, there was a power cut at NUM headquarters just as the Electoral Reform Society was handing over the result of the ballot to Mr Joe Gormley, the union’s president. This did not hold up the proceedings for longer than a minute, when Mr Gormley was able to announce that of the 217,620 valid votes, 210,039 supported the revised recommendations, and only 7,581 opposed them.
Mr Gormley said that his immediate reaction was one of happiness that “such a big majority vindicated those executive members who decided to recommend acceptance.” He hoped that preparatory work would start immediately so that coal could be cut quickly when there was a full resumption on Monday.
Later the union dispatched letters to all areas asking them to resume work as soon as possible. It stated: “In the interests of the nation as a whole and particularly to assist those fellow trade unionists who so ably assisted us, many of whom are now on short time, every effort must be made to supply fuel to industry in the shortest possible time.”
Meanwhile the Department of Trade and Industry has banned coal exports, except under licence, until further notice and British Rail has announced that a full pattern of peak and off-peak electric suburban and local train services will be restored in England and Scotland from Monday. But many trains will have fewer coaches, and except for longer distance trains, heating will remain off.
More than 100 miners escaped safely at Daw Mill colliery but the future of the site is now in doubt, says UK Coal
More than 100 miners at a closure-threatened colliery have been safely evacuated after a severe underground fire.
The operators of Daw Mill colliery in north Warwickshire said the blaze was on a scale not seen for decades and had put the future of the pit “seriously in doubt”.
UK Coal Mine Holdings confirmed that 92 underground workers were evacuated from the mine after the fire broke out at about 3.30pm on Friday.
In a statement, the company said: “The fire began at a depth of 540m (1,772ft) and a distance of 8km (5 miles) from the bottom of the main shaft.
“As a precaution, UK Coal safely evacuated 92 underground workers from the mine in accordance with standard emergency procedures.
“A specialised team of 14 underground workers, trained in firefighting, remained at the scene to extinguish the fire.
“However, at approximately 7.30pm on Friday evening, due to the increasing severity of the situation, it became clear to mine management that all remaining miners should be evacuated from the mine.”
In its statement, UK Coal Holdings said there was no risk or impact from the incident to residents living close to the site.
A team will now remain at the pit to bring the situation under control, but it is expected that the mine will be out of action for around three to six months.
A restructuring of UK Coal in 2012 achieved “medium-term security” for the mine, providing it was able to produce coal safely, reliably and efficiently.
But the statement issued on Monday said last week’s fire had put Daw Mill’s security “seriously in doubt” and would lead to talks on the implications for its remaining workforce.
Commenting on the incident, Kevin McCullough, chief executive of UK Coal, said: “This fire is on a scale not seen for decades.
“I want to thank everyone in the mine that day for their professionalism and commitment.
“From the mine workers that fought the fire initially to the mine management team that evacuated all workers safely, everyone played their part.
“The suddenness of the fire and its ferocity is something we train for and hope never to see, so the safe evacuation of over 100 miners is something the whole team can be proud of.”