WASHINGTON – Climate change, it seems, is no longer a dirty phrase for Democrats to disavow.
President Barack Obama promised in his second inaugural address to respond to climate change, casting it as a moral obligation and warning that failing to take action “would betray our children and future generations.” It’s not just a responsibility to his fellow Americans, Obama said Monday, but to “all posterity.”
Convincing Americans that they should care about climate change – or have a duty to do so – is one thing. Actually doing something about the emissions that contribute to rising sea levels, sooty skies and melting Arctic sea ice is a far more complex task. Despite Obama’s pledges Monday, the White House was scant with details afterward, saying only that it’s pursuing action under the existing regulatory framework.
Given that sweeping legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions not only failed in his first administration, but also fell apart in a way that may have damaged the fortunes of future climate-related legislation, the White House has challenging work ahead. It must negotiate a polarized Congress, regional energy interests and pressure from big polluters and the influential energy sector.
The industry is bracing for a fight. Some groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, have challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
They’ll continue to argue that regulation of greenhouse gases should come from Congress, not the executive branch, said Ross Eisenberg, the vice president of energy and resources policy for the association. International emissions and the economic consequences of U.S. regulatory decisions need to be factored in, too, he said.
“If you put constraints on one economy, and other economies you’re competing with don’t have it, you’re constraining growth and putting an additional cost on the manufacturing process that your competitors don’t have,” he said.
Congress has shown that it remains divided over what environmentalists say is one key indicator of how the second Obama administration will approach emissions. A majority of senators urged the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil to the United States from the Canadian tar sands. The administration has twice delayed a decision, which is pending environmental approval at the State Department. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave no indication Thursday in his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of state how he’d move on the decision, but he said he’d make sure that climate change issues are taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, the governor of Nebraska signed off last week on the pipeline’s path through the state.
Yet those who favor action on climate change said they were hopeful, and they’ve been drawing up plans for the White House that they think match the rhetoric of the inaugural address. Obama’s re-election was the first step, said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The next step, he and other environmentalists said, is for the president to act on his pledge.
“In November, the country went with the guy who said it’s a threat,” Deans said. “Is that a mandate? I don’t know. But without question it’s a historic opportunity. And on Monday, the president showed he’s very serious about taking advantage of that opportunity.”
The biggest step, major legislation that would have capped emissions and set up markets to trade pollution credits, failed in 2010 and is unlikely to be resurrected.
The president isn’t ruling out the idea of a legislative package to combat climate change during his second term, senior officials say. But the political landscape is even less favorable to passage of legislative initiatives than during his first term.
In the near term, Obama will probably rely on his executive authority and Environmental Protection Agency rules to avoid fights with Congress as he works to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
“I think the president isn’t just about talk,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The administration, she added, has “no choice but to act.”
Despite Obama’s public reticence on climate change during his first term, his administration moved aggressively on several fronts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. The administration contends that its first-term rules to boost gas mileage and curtail greenhouse gases from new power plants will have a demonstrable effect on carbon emissions.
The auto standards alone “did more to reduce carbon pollution than any other action that has been taken, in our view,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “We need to continue to build on that, and the president intends to continue to build on that progress in the second term.”
Supporters and opponents alike are looking for clues about Obama’s posture in upcoming decisions. The final rules for greenhouse gas limits from new power plants are due by April. It remains unclear whether the Environmental Protection Agency will then roll out new rules for existing power plants, most of which run on fossil fuels. The emissions from existing plants account for almost 40 percent of the greenhouse gases the country produces.
The administration has also said that it could make a decision by March about approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Environmentalists contend that extracting and processing the oil from Alberta’s tar sands uses so much energy, far more carbon would be pumped into the atmosphere if oil fields were developed to feed the pipeline.
If the Obama administration decides not to give the pipeline a permit, it would be in for a tough fight with those in Congress who would try to legislate approval for the project, said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental law group.
The administration could chip away at carbon emissions through other administrative steps, including limiting greenhouse gases at refineries, curtailing the flaring of natural gas at oil wells, and pushing energy-efficiency measures and investments in alternative energy. But over the long term, that might not be enough to cut emissions on the scale needed to show the country’s commitment to fighting climate change.
“Those actions will bend the carbon curve in the short term, but that curve needs to be bent steeper than those steps will allow,” Van Noppen said.
Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, confirmed that administration-backed legislation to address climate change would meet stiff resistance.
“Cap-and-trade legislation already failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and there is currently no appetite in Congress to go down that path again,” Whitfield said of providing a system of credits for limiting greenhouse gases.
Whether it be cap-and-trade, a carbon tax or new greenhouse gas regulations, “House Republicans will continue to oppose any plan that drives up energy costs and puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.
Obama himself warned in his inaugural address that the path toward sustainable energy sources would be “long and sometimes difficult.” His administration hasn’t tipped its hand when it comes to the Keystone pipeline, which, if approved, environmentalists would consider a failure to rein in future greenhouse gas emissions.
The pipeline’s rejection is one of the key goals of the Sierra Club, which said that for the first time in its 120-year history it would pursue a strategy of civil disobedience to oppose the pipeline. Obama’s mention of acts of civil disobedience in Selma, Ala., Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Manhattan’s Stonewall inspired their action, said the club’s executive director, Michael Brune.
“We want him to follow up that speech by exercising his full authority as an executive,” Brune said, “but also his full abilities as chief persuader.”
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