Clean Energy Experts to Offer Obama a Path Forward Without Congress

A new report will suggest 200 executive actions on climate and energy.

BANNING, CA - DECEMBER 8: Emissions-producing diesel trucks and cars pass non-polluting windmills along the 10 freeway on December 8, 2009 near Banning, California. Sustained global warming shows no sign of letting up according to new analysis by the World Meteorological Organization made public at the climate talks in Copenhagen. Although global temperature fluctuates from year to year, overall the decade of the 2000s is likely the warmest decade in the past 150 years covered by the report. This decade is warmer than the 1990s which were warmer than the 1980s, and so on. The conclusion meshes with independent analysis by the National Climatic Data Center and NASA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran and Amy Harder
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Clare Foran and Amy Harder
Jan. 20, 2014, 1:59 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s ef­forts to sidestep Con­gress on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues will get a big boost Tues­day from more than one hun­dred in­de­pend­ent ex­perts who will sug­gest some 200 ways he can build a leg­acy on cli­mate change and clean en­ergy through ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion.

Nearly a year in the mak­ing, a re­port from green-en­ergy lead­ers will make re­com­mend­a­tions for ex­ec­ut­ive-branch ac­tions in six areas: en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, re­new­able mar­kets, re­new­able-en­ergy fin­an­cing, al­tern­at­ive-fueled vehicles, new busi­ness mod­els, and nat­ur­al-gas rule-mak­ings.

“This is an ex­er­cise to have a group of people who are out­side the Belt­way think about how to help the pres­id­ent move a clean-en­ergy agenda for­ward with a Con­gress that doesn’t act,” said Bill Ritter, a former Col­or­ado gov­ernor who spear­headed the re­port as part of his work dir­ect­ing the Cen­ter for the New En­ergy Eco­nomy at Col­or­ado State Uni­versity.

“It isn’t that the pres­id­ent can do all of this over the re­mainder of his second term; the thought is to give the pres­id­ent a menu of op­tions,” said Ritter, who would not dis­close de­tails of the re­port.

He and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Obama’s former en­ergy and cli­mate ad­viser Heath­er Zichal, will present the re­port at an event in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day, ex­actly a week ahead of Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress out­lining his policy pri­or­it­ies for the com­ing year.

“Right now the ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing at ways to lever­age private in­vest­ment, and the re­com­mend­a­tions we’re get­ting ready to present are the res­ult of sig­ni­fic­ant out­reach to sev­er­al hun­dred heads of or­gan­iz­a­tions such as util­it­ies com­pan­ies, large en­ergy users, and ma­jor play­ers in the en­ergy busi­ness,” said Sue Tier­ney, a man­aging prin­cip­al at the con­sult­ing firm Ana­lys­is Group, who was in­volved in the re­port and will be among the speak­ers at Tues­day’s event.

The re­port stems from a 90-minute meet­ing Obama held with Ritter and oth­er en­ergy ex­perts last March. Since that meet­ing, Ritter has been in reg­u­lar con­tact with the White House and he and oth­er ex­perts who were in­volved briefed Cab­in­et mem­bers on the re­port last week.

While he doesn’t have any plans to meet with Obama again, Ritter said he does plan to meet with John Podesta, Obama’s new seni­or ad­viser on these is­sues, and oth­ers some­time in the next week or so.

One White House of­fi­cial praised the re­port. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to mov­ing to clean­er en­ergy solu­tions, and wel­comes this set of re­com­mend­a­tions for mov­ing for­ward on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, re­new­ables, ad­vanced vehicles, and oth­er key en­ergy pri­or­it­ies,” White House spokes­man Matt Lehrich said in an email.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s car­bon reg­u­la­tions for power plants are the corner­stone of Obama’s cli­mate agenda, and they cer­tainly draw the most cri­ti­cism. But the White House is sim­ul­tan­eously im­ple­ment­ing many oth­er com­pon­ents of his plan an­nounced in June, and the re­port to be re­leased Tues­day will show the breadth of what an ad­min­is­tra­tion can do without Con­gress.

Oth­er re­cent ac­tions the ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken ir­re­spect­ive of Con­gress in­clude launch­ing a wide-ran­ging ini­ti­at­ive this month called the Quad­ren­ni­al En­ergy Re­view, which will identi­fy ways the ad­min­is­tra­tion can im­prove in­fra­struc­ture and mit­ig­ate risks in­volved in en­ergy trans­port and de­liv­ery. Obama also hired Podesta, founder of the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, a lib­er­al think tank, to ad­vise him on en­ergy and cli­mate policy, among oth­er is­sues.

Zichal, who stepped down from her White House post late last year, said Podesta will be in­stru­ment­al in co­ordin­at­ing meet­ings among dif­fer­ent fed­er­al agen­cies on en­ergy and cli­mate is­sues.

“Driv­ing those kinds of con­ver­sa­tions sounds a little simplist­ic, but mak­ing sure agen­cies are talk­ing to one an­oth­er and work­ing to­geth­er to move all of these things for­ward is really im­port­ant and hav­ing a cent­ral fig­ure to co­ordin­ate these activ­it­ies I be­lieve is a role John is go­ing to help fill,” Zichal said.

Any in­crease in the pres­id­ent’s use of ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity is sure to pro­voke push-back from crit­ics who say Obama is evad­ing con­gres­sion­al over­sight by mov­ing uni­lat­er­ally on his policy ob­ject­ives. Obama is already fa­cing cri­ti­cism for his EPA rules, but past pres­id­ents of both parties have used ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to by­pass Con­gress be­fore.

In 1993, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton is­sued a cli­mate ac­tion plan out­lining ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions to bol­ster en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, cut back on the re­lease of meth­ane — a po­tent green­house gas — and pro­mote nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion.

“Nearly every pres­id­ent has looked in­to how to max­im­ize ex­ist­ing au­thor­ity,” said Dirk For­ris­ter, a former Clin­ton cli­mate aide who is now pres­id­ent and CEO of the In­ter­na­tion­al Emis­sions Trad­ing As­so­ci­ation. “Pres­id­ent Clin­ton star­ted with a cli­mate-change ac­tion plan that in­cluded in­put from all of the agen­cies, and then later on in his pres­id­ency there was also a set of in­dustry con­sulta­tions to see if there was in­terest in an emis­sions trad­ing sys­tem.”

Pres­id­ent George W. Bush also is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der re­quir­ing fed­er­al agen­cies to rein in green­house-gas emis­sions. In 2007, Bush called on EPA and the de­part­ments of En­ergy, Ag­ri­cul­ture, and Trans­port­a­tion to es­tab­lish emis­sion stand­ards for mo­tor vehicles after the Su­preme Court ruled that EPA had an ob­lig­a­tion to do so un­der the Clean Air Act.

Non­ethe­less, this ad­min­is­tra­tion faces unique chal­lenges, in­clud­ing con­stant budget cuts and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans seek­ing to curb en­ergy and cli­mate spend­ing at every chance.

“Where there are in­vest­ments to be made around re­search and de­vel­op­ment to help make the next-gen­er­a­tion bio­fuels, sol­ar pan­els, and en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency tech­no­logy, the budgets are be­ing cut sig­ni­fic­antly, and that is go­ing to ul­ti­mately lead to lim­it­a­tions,” Zichal said.

Obama him­self has not paid much lip ser­vice to his own ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate and en­ergy push since his speech in June, but Zichal and oth­ers say that doesn’t mean the work isn’t get­ting done.

She noted that the health care law im­ple­ment­a­tion and na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues, in­clud­ing the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, have de­man­ded much of Obama’s time as of late.

“But that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of im­port­ant work hap­pen­ing,” Zichal said. “Whenev­er there is something mov­ing un­der the frame­work of the Cli­mate Ac­tion Plan, their goal is to de­ploy as many seni­or Cab­in­et mem­bers as they can to shine a spot­light on all the pro­gress that is be­ing made.”

Ritter agrees. “I think the pres­id­ent has a lot on his plate,” the Col­or­ado Demo­crat said. “And he is ex­tremely well-staffed.”

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