Time Is Ticking for Obama’s Climate Agenda

Ronald Brownstein

As President Obama reboots his campaign against climate change, his most formidable obstacle is no longer the coal industry or congressional Republicans. It’s the calendar.

In his first term, Obama sought legislative limits on the carbon emissions associated with global climate change but failed when the Senate shelved the “cap-and-trade” legislation the House passed in 2009. Obama this week announced he would pursue the same goals, primarily through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon emissions from existing power plants. Those regulations would squeeze the use of coal to generate electricity. Together with existing rules improving automotive fuel economy and other pending EPA standards that effectively bar the construction of coal-fired power plants, the new rules could achieve Obama’s goal of cutting emissions by nearly one-fifth by 2020.

Obama’s announcement is already generating political storms. But for institutional, economic, and political reasons, he has more leverage now than during his first-term legislative failure. The flip side is that because he’s relying on regulatory, not legislative, authority, his decisions will be easier to reverse if he cannot armor-plate them before January 2017, when a Republican could regain the White House. That’s why associates say the president already feels the clock ticking.

With Republicans controlling the House, Obama has even less chance today of attracting enough votes to pass carbon-limiting legislation than he did in 2009. Yet because he is acting through regulation, opponents must amass enough votes to stop him. That gives him the institutional edge. Using the Congressional Review Act, the House would likely pass a resolution blocking the regulation when it’s completed, and a narrow Senate majority might follow. But Obama would inevitably veto such a resolution, and critics are unlikely to reach the two-thirds majorities required to overturn him.

The economic climate for action has also improved. Regulations that discourage coal by limiting carbon would follow the market’s existing current. In 2008, coal generated almost half of U.S. electricity and natural gas just one-fifth. But with low-cost domestic gas production booming through use of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), utilities in 2012 relied nearly as much on natural gas (30 percent) as coal (37 percent). Although coal has slightly reopened its advantage as gas prices have inched up, the prospect of stable, affordable natural gas to replace coal is diminishing fear that emission limits would spike electricity prices; utility executives also find a transition to gas less jarring than the generational leap to solar or wind many envisaged in 2009. Because of low natural-gas prices, says Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, “economically the table is set ... [for] a major move against coal.”

Politically Obama is better positioned for the fight, too. That’s not so much because public opinion has shifted. Comparing 2009 to 2013, Pew Research Center polls show that slightly more adults believe human activity is changing the climate, with gains heaviest among independents, the college-educated, and those under 50. Polls, however, show that most Americans don’t prioritize carbon reductions and remain leery of price rises. In terms of overall opinion, one senior White House official acknowledges, “this is a tough slog.”

What’s changed politically since 2009 is that Obama’s reelection demonstrated Democrats could sustain a presidential majority despite unprecedented energy-industry spending against them. Resource-dependent states that generate the most carbon per dollar of economic output will probably erupt most over further EPA regulation. But in presidential races, Democrats can survive that hit: 17 of the 20 most carbon-intensive states (according to federal figures) voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, while 18 of the 20 least carbon-intensive backed Obama. The 14 Democratic senators from the most carbon-intensive states will face greater risk, but some would reduce their exposure by opposing any EPA regulation.

Obama’s key test may be finalizing the rule before he leaves office. EPA missed its deadline for regulating new-plant emissions and could need two years to complete standards for existing facilities. Then it must wait months more for states to submit plans for implementing it—which many red states may refuse to do. (The law allows EPA to step in.) That leaves Obama with little time to spare, especially since the rule will inevitably face legal challenges.

A Republican president could more easily sidetrack an uncompleted rule (as George W. Bush did with Bill Clinton’s unfinished work on mercury pollution). But if Obama finishes the EPA regulation, his successor would need a formal rulemaking to undo it—no easy task. A GOP president might find it tough even to stop legally defending a completed regulation, because blue states and environmentalists would intervene to defend it, notes Natural Resources Defense Council Climate Director Daniel Lashof. Most important, Lashof says, once the rule is done, utilities will make investments based on it that “create a momentum that … becomes increasingly difficult” to reverse. As with health care, Obama’s best chance of ensuring that his climate priorities outlast him is to move quickly to create facts on the ground.