When President Obama addresses Congress in his State of the Union speech tonight, he is widely expected to lay out the details of his plan to take on climate change.
Behind the scenes, in the White House and Environmental Protection Agency, the wheels of that plan are already in motion.
That’s because Obama intends to act on climate change without help from Congress.
His efforts to pass a sweeping climate-change bill through Congress cratered in the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010, and new legislation would have almost no chance of success in the current divided Congress.
So the administration’s energy and environment officials are gearing up to use the president’s executive authority to roll out powerful new EPA rules controlling carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants. Sources close to the EPA say they expect a proposed rule will be issued by the end of this year, and EPA officials are already thinking about how it can be crafted to have the biggest environmental impact, cause the least economic harm, and stand up to the tsunami of legal, legislative, and political attacks that are sure to follow.
Obama and his team know full well that environmental regulations on energy are deeply politically unpopular – throughout his reelection campaign, he fought off a fusillade of attacks from Republicans slamming him for supporting so-called “job-killing regulations.”
But the president appears to be prepared to take the heat to fight global warming – and this may be the moment in which to do it.
“He’s in the unique position now of never needing to run again, and he’s freer to do and say things that he hasn’t before -- in terms of policy action, he’s got to be able to use the executive branch,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who recently briefed the White House on the latest polling on the public’s view on climate change. “The response I heard is that they’re looking at this very seriously.”
In the wake of superstorm Sandy and new reports showing that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous U.S., public support for climate action – even without buy-in from Congress – is high.
A Duke University poll released last Thursday found that a majority of Americans – 64 percent – strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants, factories and cars, and requiring utilities to generate more power from “clean” low-carbon sources.
Grassroots and lobbying action to push Obama to act on climate change soon is ramping up. On Monday, a group of New Jersey residents – survivors of superstorm Sandy – met with White House officials and delivered a letter with 280,000 signatures urging Obama to lead on climate change. This Sunday, thousands of environmental protesters will converge at the White House in what organizers hope will be the largest climate-change rally in U.S. history. On Friday, six scientific organizations sent Obama a letter urging him to convene a “national summit” on climate change, to identify the most effective climate policies.
“Such a national summit on climate change should be informed by science and could bring your administration together with leaders in the fields of climate research and modeling, mitigation, adaptation, and ecosystem restoration and resilience,” wrote the Society for Conservation Biology, the Society for Ecological Restoration, the American Fisheries Society, and three other groups.
Their letter echoes a similar push from environmental groups, which have also urged the White House to hold one or more “climate summits” to help build public awareness of the problem.
The administration will also work to build up buy-in, if not outright support, from polluting industries that will face regulation. It’s likely, say sources close to the White House, that Obama’s team will aim to replicate the success of a 2009 EPA regulation on greenhouse-gas pollution from vehicles. In the months ahead of issuing that regulation, White House officials held dozens of meetings with the heads of the nation’s auto companies, together hammering out a rule requiring automakers to build more fuel-efficient, less polluting cars.
In the end, even though automakers weren’t overjoyed with the regulations, they didn’t push back – and heads of the auto companies stood with Obama in a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the rules.
It’s unlikely that the Obama administration will ever get the chiefs of big coal utilities – some of which spent heavily on campaigns to unseat him in 2012 – to stand smiling next to him when he announces new regulations. But the hope, people working on the process say, is to at least minimize the explosive pushback.
That’s not to say that Republicans in Congress won’t weigh in.
Watch for Obama’s executive climate change action – and pushback by Republicans in Congress -- to begin soon after the speech. On Thursday, Lisa Jackson, Obama’s first-term EPA chief, will formally step down.
The top two contenders to succeed Jackson – her deputy, Bob Persiacepe, and the agency’s top clean-air regulator, Gina McCarthy – have both been working on clean-air and climate regulations for years. McCarthy has headed several outreach campaigns on earlier EPA clean air rulings, inviting industry heads to the agency to offer input on the rules ahead of time.
While polluting industries resisted the rules, industry heads have privately offered quiet praise of McCarthy, saying her early outreach allowed companies to prepare for the rules, minimizing their economic punch.
Still, Republicans are expected to pounce on the climate rules when they come.
Throughout the 2012 election cycle, the Republican-dominated House made energy and climate change a lightning-rod political issue. House GOP leaders brought dozens of bills to the floor aimed at gutting EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.
Whoever Obama’s nominee is to head the EPA is expected to face a fierce grilling from Republicans during their Senate confirmation hearing – Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the new ranking Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, has made attacks on the EPA a hallmark of his short tenure.
Still, there are some signs that the Republican reaction against Obama’s energy and climate agenda might not be quite as heated as it was during the campaign.
On Tuesday, just hours before Obama will arrive in the House chamber, House GOP leaders will bring their first energy bills of the year to the floor. But they aren’t message measures aimed at increasing drilling, approving the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, or rolling back environmental regulations. They are small but significant bills aimed at increasing renewable energy production – and both are expected to pass with bipartisan support.
“It’s not a coincidence that we’re bringing these up, with this timing,” a House Republican aide told National Journal. “As Democrats continue to continue to lay claim to the idea that we’re the party of fossil fuel or bust, we’re looking for any bill that can promote domestic energy. It’s representative of a true all-of-the-above approach.”