Obama Focuses on Climate Threat, but Policy Measures Remain Unclear

By Dean Scott, Ari Natter, and Andrew Childers  

WASHINGTON, D.C.--President Obama’s decision to highlight climate change in his second inaugural address may signal a renewed commitment to action on the issue in his second term, but it is too early to tell whether that will translate into a new push for legislation in 2013, senators and environmental groups said Jan. 22.

Obama’s pledge--that the United States “must lead” in global efforts on climate change--elevated the issue and highlighted what many environmental groups see as unfinished business from his first term after the demise of Senate legislation in 2010 that would have established an economywide program to cap greenhouse gas emissions and set up an emissions trading scheme.

Several senators said it remains to be seen whether Obama's comments will translate into a broad agenda, including another attempt at getting congressional consensus on climate legislation, particularly given opposition to carbon caps in the Republican-controlled House.

Legislation is not the only option, as the Environmental Protection Agency already has a rulemaking agenda that includes a regulation expected to be finalized this spring to address emissions from new power plants, but the agency has been noncommittal on any time frame for dealing with the more than 1,200 existing coal-fired generating units around the country. White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, appeared to downplay the significance of the president's remarks in speaking to reporters Jan. 22.

Sen. Reid's Priorities

On the heels of the president’s comments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included a climate-related measure--although titled more vaguely “Preparing for Extreme Weather”--in a list he released Jan. 22 of his top 10 legislative priorities for the 113th Congress. Reid aides said the reference was meant as a placeholder for some form of climate legislation but provided few other details.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and a longtime advocate of U.S. carbon caps, said Obama will need to stay focused on the climate issue if there is to be any hope of congressional action. “For the president to include [climate change] in his inaugural address--this is a new day” Carper told reporters before the weekly Senate policy lunch.

“But if the administration doesn’t [take] the lead, I am not sure this is an [issue] that the Congress can” ever agree on, Carper said. Carper is among several Senate Democrats, including Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who launched a climate change caucus in December 2012 in hopes of capitalizing on renewed interest in a climate bill following Hurricane Sandy (238 WCCR, 12/11/12).

“Betrayal of Our Children'

The president, in his second inaugural address Jan. 21, vowed “to respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The United States must not “resist” the coming transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources, Obama said, and while some may “deny the overwhelming judgment of science … none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said there is still “certainly a need for executive action” as well as presidential leadership on the climate issue but that congressional action will require far more cooperation by the parties.

Wyden told reporters he is already reaching out to the top energy committee Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), on other issues, from campaign finance to how government royalties are allocated from coal production. Murkowski has argued that future subsidies for clean energy should be funded through royalties produced through increased domestic oil, natural gas, and coal production (108 WCCR, 6/5/12).

Industry Groups Hold Fire

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading skeptic of climate science, warned that any effort to resurrect cap-and-trade legislation would suffer the same fate as the effort to pass a bill in 2009, when Republicans derided the legislation as a new energy tax that would drive up the prices of gasoline and home heating oil. “They [are] not going to be able to pass [this] now anymore than” the last attempt early in Obama’s first term, Inhofe said on the Senate floor Jan. 22.

Industry groups said they were holding their fire for now until they see more specifics from the president on his climate agenda. Scott Segal, of the Bracewell and Giuliani law firm’s Policy Resolution Group, which represents the energy industry, said Obama had given a “soaring and impressive speech” that appeared “to embrace a broad agenda on climate change.”

But the president missed an opportunity to remind the American people that climate change is an international problem that can only be solved by international solutions, Segal said.

Environmental groups give his administration high marks for boosting clean energy spending, raising fuel efficiency standards and imposing greenhouse gas limits for automobiles, and using existing EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by power plants.

Keystone Decision Pending

But they say it will be difficult to square Obama’s comments in his second inaugural address with what many predict will be an inevitable presidential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would likely increase carbon-intensive oil production from Canadian oil sands. In a Jan. 7 letter to the president, Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and dozens of other environmental groups wrote that approving the pipeline “would unlock vast amounts of additional carbon that we can’t afford to burn,” given already rising global temperatures.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told BNA Jan. 22 that he sees no inherent conflict between the president approving the Keystone XL pipeline and committing to action on climate change. “I don’t see where it’s conflicting at all actually. We still have to run vehicles, I still have to put fuel in my tractor,” Tester said. “We still have to do those kind of things” that require fossil fuels “and that’s going to be that way for quite a while.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, suggested to reporters Jan. 22 that Obama’s singling out of the climate change and clean energy issues was most likely aimed at softening an impending blow to environmental advocates that will come when the president ultimately approves the Keystone XL pipeline. Nebraska Jan. 22 approved a new route for the pipeline through that state, leaving the matter now in the hands of Obama to issue a presidential permit (see related story).

Climate 'Not a Singular Priority'

Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters that Obama is still “mindful” that there is congressional opposition to climate legislation but that the president remains supportive of legislative action, just as he was during his first term. But Carney cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the president’s mention of the issue in his second inaugural address.

“I would encourage everyone who looks at the speech not to break it apart” from other themes the president focused on Jan. 21, Carney said.

Climate change is “an important issue. It’s a priority,” Carney said. But “it is not a singular priority, it is one of a host of priorities that he believes we can act on if we work together,” the spokesman said.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said environmental groups heard Obama’s pledge to address climate change as a “clarion call to action” and that the president left “no doubt this will be a priority in his second term.” But translating that call into action will require a sustained effort by the president and his administration, he said.

No Shift in International Positions

Internationally, Obama’s comments are unlikely to trigger a discernible shift in the negotiating stance of other nations such as rapidly developing economic powers China and India, Meyer said. Those and other countries, including the United States, have pledged to reach a global climate pact in 2015 and have it in force in 2020.

Meyer said he expects the Obama administration to push for other actions on the international climate change front, such as through other forums outside the United Nations climate negotiations. Those forums include the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which brings together the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

The MEF “could be where we first see the fruits of the president’s renewed focus on the issue,” Meyer said.

Continued Focus on Power Plants

Environmental groups argue that the administration can significantly curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by finalizing pending EPA greenhouse gas limits for new power plants this spring and then focusing on setting limits for existing plants.

The requirements for new power plants, to be finalized in April, will trigger a requirement under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to issue similar standards for existing power plants.

EPA also is considering proposing greenhouse gas performance standards for petroleum refineries. Refineries are the second largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent in 2010, second to the 2.3 billion metric tons emitted that year by power plants.

Agency officials have not said when they might issue greenhouse gas limits for existing power plants, which would have to be administered by states, and those are not expected to be finalized for several years. Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, told BNA in a Jan. 18 interview that the agency intends to first have a “robust dialogue” with the power sector and state regulators.

“I do not have a timeline for when EPA might feel comfortable providing [that] guidance to the states,” she said.