Obama Puts Presidential Push Behind Climate Change

Amy Harder
National Journal

After putting climate change on the backburner since his legislative efforts failed in Congress three years ago, President Obama appears ready to again expend political clout on the issue.

Obama announced in a web video Saturday that he will give a speech Tuesday at Georgetown University to "lay out my vision for where I believe we need to go: A national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change and lead global efforts to fight it."

The cornerstone of the administration's plan will be regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, which account for almost 40 percent of the country's carbon emissions, according to sources familiar with the forthcoming plan.

"I think he's going to say the agency is going to pursue a regulatory program for existing sources," said one industry source aware of the administration's strategy.

The Environmental Protection Agency has already proposed draft rules to control greenhouse gas emissions from new plants, but it is existing facilities that matter most in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For the last four years, EPA has been quietly laying the groundwork for these rules, compelled to do so by a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 and a subsequent scientific finding in 2009 that concluded greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public's health and welfare. But amid the presidential election and other political priorities, these EPA rules have not received the presidential backing necessary to get them across the finish line.

Tuesday's speech could change the political dynamics significantly. Obama is signaling that he does, indeed, want to make this a legacy issue for his administration as he had said in both his inaugural and State of the Union addresses.

"It's just a question of getting this process started," said Jody Freeman, who worked in the White House on energy and climate issues during Obama's first term and is now a professor at Harvard University. "If he's out there talking about it, he's saying we're at the starting line, let's go. That unleashes the agencies to do the work they can do. There is no reason they can't succeed if they start now."

Combating climate change via regulation is the least popular and efficient way to go, analysts say, but it may be the only tool Obama has left. The plan is already inciting political backlash on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reacted to the anticipated plan last week, saying it was "absolutely crazy."

Obama is not expected to mention the Keystone XL pipeline in his speech, which environmentalists have seized on as a rallying cry to combat climate change. A final decision on that project won't occur until later this year or early next year.

The other parts of the plan Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday include speeding up development of renewable energy on public lands and toughening energy-efficiency standards for appliances.