Obama climate strategy represents piecemeal approach

President Obama will invoke his executive authority Tuesday by undertaking a slew of measures aimed at curbing climate change and its impacts, from imposing the first carbon limits on existing power plants to requiring all federal projects to withstand rising seas and more intense storms.

The laundry list of policies Obama will outline in a speech Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University ? some new, many of which build on existing programs ? hint at both the opportunity and challenge the president faces when it comes to global warming.

Freed from the need to compromise with Congress, Obama can enact regulations and issue directives that will change both government and the marketplace before he leaves office. But he is embarking on a piecemeal approach that targets individual sectors of the economy, with many of the details to be sketched out in the next two years.

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute said the speech is “of extraordinary importance” because the president would be “resetting the climate agenda” by articulating a national strategy for the United States. “Now it matters because until it is clear where a nation is going on this, private investors and citizens don’t really know what long-term signals to follow,” Steer said.

But even as Obama answers a central question facing him in his second term ? by instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a proposed rule to regulate carbon dioxide from existing coal and gas-fired utilities by June 2014 and finalize it a year later ? it remains unclear exactly how the agency will do that, and what it will cost industry.

The EPA has not yet begun drafting the rule, according to individuals familiar with the agency’s plans who asked not to be identified, and has only devised an “outreach” document aimed at starting discussions with state officials and other key constituencies. Furthermore EPA will now re-propose its rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants in September, according to these individuals, and will establish separate standards for gas and coal-fired power plants as the utility industry had sought.

Jeffrey Holmstead, who represents several utilities as a partner at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the administration will not specify how much the new power plant rule will achieve in emission reductions or what it will cost to implement, since “EPA just doesn’t know what’s realistic because the statute doesn’t give a lot of options.”

Kyle Danish, an attorney at the law firm Van Ness Feldman, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide from existing coal plants required a “novel interpretation of this part of the Clean Air Act,” because there is no best available technology for reducing CO2 emissions. “It’s a little bit of a twist but that’s the tool that they have,” he said.

Holmstead, who headed EPA’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said the approach highlights the administration’s dilemma: “The White House faces a challenge because there’s not a single, big, bold action that shows they can deal with climate change.”

Instead the administration will expand on several of its current initiatives: developing fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans beyond model year 2018; implementing energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings that, combined with earlier rules, will reduce carbon emissions by a total of 3 billion metric tons or more by 2030; and pursuing a global agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerants and air conditioning worldwide.

Obama will also set some new clean energy targets, such as instructing the Interior Department to permit 10 gigawatts of renewable power on public lands by 2020 and pushing for negotiations at the World Trade Organization aimed at eliminating tariffs on the trade in environmental goods such as clean-energy technologies.

The agenda has drawn plaudits from environmentalists, who have been pressing the administration for months to take bolder action on global warming in the face of congressional opposition.

“Not only is this by far the most comprehensive and ambitious administrative plan proposed by any president, it’s also common sense and very popular with the public,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) spokesman Don Stewart questioned that assessment, asking in an e-mail why Obama did not press this issue harder before the 2012 election. “In what amounts to a national energy tax, the president will pivot away from jobs ? the No. 1 issue for constituents,” Stewart wrote.

Both Republicans and some business leaders say they are concerned the proposals will jeopardize access to cheap fossil fuel energy that has helped keep America competitive with manufacturers overseas. Shares of U.S. coal mining companies slid sharply Monday, in part over concern of how the president’s plan would affect their future viability.

Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, said if the administration imposes impractical standards on coal companies, “taking America’s most significant source of electricity offline would have disastrous consequences for our nation’s economy.”

Still, the list of policies does not give environmentalists everything they wanted. It remains silent on two critical climate decisions the White House will have to make later on ? whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and whether to compel federal agencies to take climate change into account when conducting environmental reviews of agency decisions.

And Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies, wrote in an e-mail that the president’s climate strategy “is a collection of previously announced efforts, so it’s really a ‘re-action’ plan.

Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association, said that while he was pleased to see the president focus on curbing carbon emissions from power plants, “One thing we’ve learned with this administration, proposing a regulation and finalizing a regulation is two different things. You have to start, but you have to finish.”

Several of the new initiatives Obama will outline Tuesday focus on helping the U.S. cope with global warming’s impact. The president will not only direct agencies to make it easier to spend federal funds on making communities more resilient to climate change, he will launch an initiative to ensure hospitals can withstand climate impacts and require the federal flood insurance program as well as any new federal road, building or project to take sea level rise and increased storm surge into account during planning and construction.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Congress.org