President Obama’s second Inaugural Address left no doubt about his desire to put climate change front and center in his second term. He’s likely to pursue his agenda through executive actions rather than legislation, at least initially.
That could put the Environmental Protection Agency at the center of a political battle, as Senate Republicans use the process of confirming a new head of the agency as a chance to weigh in on or even block what they see as regulatory overreach by the administration in pursuit of climate-change goals.
Republicans have bristled in the last four years at regulations coming out of Obama's EPA—Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota wanted to shut the agency altogether. Administrator Lisa Jackson was a particular target, criticized for her implementation of Clean Air Act regulations and, more recently, for conducting official business using an email alias.
As Obama's second term begins, EPA might become an even bigger target as Republicans brace for the likelihood that Obama will use the agency's powers to pursue his climate agenda. Environmental groups have urged the administration to use EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to limit the carbon emissions that power plants are allowed to produce and to implement stricter standards on leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, both of which can be achieved without any further congressional approval.
Brian Deese, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, reiterated on Thursday the administration’s intent to pursue such an approach to energy policymaking. “[We will] continue to look for tools, administrative actions that we can take that don’t require Congress and in many cases don’t require federal dollars,” Deese said at an event hosted by National Journal and The Atlantic, citing regulatory authority as one such tool.
Although EPA is the prime symbol of the Obama administration’s climate-change agenda, other departments will also play a role—departments that are expected to face confirmation fights in the coming months. The Energy Department, for example, can adopt new efficiency standards for home appliances. The State Department will rule on a permit for part of the Keystone XL pipeline that would cross into Canada. Each of those departments is likely to face or is already in the process of confirming a new director. The nominee for secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry, raised the issue of climate change as an international threat during his confirmation hearing on Thursday; the nominee for Energy secretary is also likely to be questioned on his or her views on pursuing the president's climate agenda.
At EPA, Jackson announced she was stepping down last month, and the administration has yet to nominate a replacement. Among the leading candidates are former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, and Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.
Congress isn’t expected to take up climate legislation any time soon. It will be preoccupied in coming months by a series of looming budget fights, gun-control legislation, and immigration reform. A sweeping cap-and-trade bill that Obama had pushed in his first term never made it through Congress. This time, Senate Democrats have indicated they are ready to let the EPA run the show.
So get ready for a show.
Melinda Pierce, deputy director for national campaigns at the Sierra Club, said the hearing to replace Jackson at EPA might be "doubly contentious" if the agency is perceived as a key stakeholder in moving Obama's climate agenda forward.