Shale gives Obama elbow room on climate change – by Eric Reguly (Globe and Mail – June 29, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

ROME — Why did U.S. President Barack Obama launch his climate change fighting plans when he did?

The timing of his Climate Action Plan speech, on Tuesday at Georgetown University, was indeed curious. Climate change initiatives have all but died in the post-Lehman Brothers world. The 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference was a bust on a global scale and, since then, tapped-out governments have been obsessed with keeping their sorry treasuries intact, stemming job losses and, in southern Europe, keeping demonstrators from burning the place down. Preserving the environment has always been a rich country’s hobby.

To be sure, the United States is richer than most, but its recovery has been weak. The point being, fighting climate change is still a tough sell in the United States, especially among the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, where flat earth science is alive and well. Fixing climate change costs money. Even if most people suspect that carbon emissions from human activity are to blame for global warming, these same people also suspect that carbon-reducing policies are more likely to kill jobs than create them.

Along comes Mr. Obama with fairly ambitious climate change plans: They include imposing emissions standards on existing, as well as new, electricity generating plants, a commitment to double renewable power by 2020, $8-billion (U.S.) in loan guarantees for clean energy innovation, new energy efficiency standards for house appliances, the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and bilateral efforts with China, India and other big polluters to address climate change.

None of this is blockbuster stuff; taken as a whole, it looks like a slow but determined and balanced approach for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

So why now? Because the U.S. is no longer obsessed with energy security, allowing it to pay some attention to climate change.

Shale oil and shale gas are coming on strong, sending American energy imports plummeting. Thanks to the gas glut, coal, the dirtiest fuel, is (slowly) losing it default fuel status in power plants. According to a May Chatham House report on U.S. energy, natural gas has increased its share of the American electricity market by 5 per cent in recent years, at coal’s expense.

The trend is likely to continue, though coal prices are dropping, meaning reports of its eventual demise are vastly exaggerated.

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