Top Aide to Obama Outlines Coming Climate Strategy

Amy Harder
National Journal

The climate-change policy President Obama is expected to roll out next month will focus on energy efficiency, renewable-energy development on public lands, and—most contentious of the three—regulations controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, a top White House aide said Wednesday.

"If there's one thing I learned in the four and a half years in the White House, it's not to get in front of the big guy, but it is worth mentioning the Clean Air Act," Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said at a forum hosted by The New Republic and American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "This is a tool whether it's the car rule or the mercury rule, we know that we can implement it with success."

This is the first time a White House official has said on the record that Obama's forthcoming strategy, first reported by Bloomberg last week, will include some component of the Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse-gas rules. Exactly what that means is still unclear. Zichal declined to offer details, including whether the July package would contain a proposal for existing power plants that account for 40 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the country. EPA last year issued a draft rule for new power plants, whose impact on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is significantly limited compared with the rules for existing plants.

"EPA has been working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gases from the coal sector," Zichal said. "They're doing a lot of important work in that space."

The other two components of the strategy are tightening energy-efficiency standards of appliances and speeding up development of renewable energy on public lands. "None of them require new legislation and none of them require new funding," she said of the three-part plan.

None of these measures is wholly new or surprising. Indeed, all of them are already expected, and two of them have been delayed over the last year while Obama ran for reelection. After he won, Obama discussed climate change in both his Inaugural Address and his State of the Union message. Zichal said Wednesday that Obama is committed to following up that talk with action.

"He is serious about making it a second-term priority," she said. "He knows this is a legacy issue."

Speaking in Berlin on Wednesday, Obama said the United States will do more to combat climate change.

"The effort to slow climate change requires bold action, and on this, Germany and Europe have led,” Obama said, then citing what the United States has done to bring down its greenhouse-gas emissions. “But we know we have to do more,” he added. The president went on to describe climate change as the “global threat of our time.”

“For the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late.”

The White House has been tight-lipped on the timing of Obama's climate-change strategy, but sources close to the administration have estimated early to mid-July.

"We'll know in a couple of weeks the level of ambition," John Podesta, chair of the liberal think tank Center of American Progress and a former chief of staff to President Clinton, said at the New Republic and American University event. "The president is getting ready to do a big speech and lay out a climate plan."

Echoing environmentalists in virtually every corner of the community, Podesta said that clamping down on the greenhouse-gas emissions of current power plants is key to Obama's agenda.

"I think the centerpiece of that has got to be existing coal-fired power plants," Podesta said.