Time Is Ticking for Obama’s Climate Agenda

National Journal

As President Obama reboots his campaign against climate change, his most formidable obstacle is no longer the coal industry or congressional Republicans. It’s the calendar.

In his first term, Obama sought legislative limits on the carbon emissions associated with global climate change but failed when the Senate shelved the “cap-and-trade” legislation the House passed in 2009. Obama this week announced he would pursue the same goals, primarily through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon emissions from existing power plants. Those regulations would squeeze the use of coal to generate electricity. Together with existing rules improving automotive fuel economy and other pending EPA standards that effectively bar the construction of coal-fired power plants, the new rules could achieve Obama’s goal of cutting emissions by nearly one-fifth by 2020.

Obama’s announcement is already generating political storms. But for institutional, economic, and political reasons, he has more leverage now than during his first-term legislative failure. The flip side is that because he’s relying on regulatory, not legislative, authority, his decisions will be easier to reverse if he cannot armor-plate them before January 2017, when a Republican could regain the White House. That’s why associates say the president already feels the clock ticking.

With Republicans controlling the House, Obama has even less chance today of attracting enough votes to pass carbon-limiting legislation than he did in 2009. Yet because he is acting through regulation, opponents must amass enough votes to stop him. That gives him the institutional edge. Using the Congressional Review Act, the House would likely pass a resolution blocking the regulation when it’s completed, and a narrow Senate majority might follow. But Obama would inevitably veto such a resolution, and critics are unlikely to reach the two-thirds majorities required to overturn him.

The economic climate for action has also improved. Regulations that discourage coal by limiting carbon would follow the market’s existing current. In 2008, coal generated almost half of U.S. electricity and natural gas just one-fifth. But with low-cost domestic gas production booming through use of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), utilities in 2012 relied nearly as much on natural gas (30 percent) as coal (37 percent). Although coal has slightly reopened its advantage as gas prices have inched up, the prospect of stable, affordable natural gas to replace coal is diminishing fear that emission limits would spike electricity prices; utility executives also find a transition to gas less jarring than the generational leap to solar or wind many envisaged in 2009. Because of low natural-gas prices, says Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, “economically the table is set ... [for] a major move against coal.”

Politically Obama is better positioned for the fight, too. That’s not so much because public opinion has shifted. Comparing 2009 to 2013, Pew Research Center polls show that slightly more adults believe human activity is changing the climate, with gains heaviest among independents, the college-educated, and those under 50. Polls, however, show that most Americans don’t prioritize carbon reductions and remain leery of price rises. In terms of overall opinion, one senior White House official acknowledges, “this is a tough slog.”

What’s changed politically since 2009 is that Obama’s reelection demonstrated Democrats could sustain a presidential majority despite unprecedented energy-industry spending against them. Resource-dependent states that generate the most carbon per dollar of economic output will probably erupt most over further EPA regulation. But in presidential races, Democrats can survive that hit: 17 of the 20 most carbon-intensive states (according to federal figures) voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, while 18 of the 20 least carbon-intensive backed Obama. The 14 Democratic senators from the most carbon-intensive states will face greater risk, but some would reduce their exposure by opposing any EPA regulation.

Obama’s key test may be finalizing the rule before he leaves office. EPA missed its deadline for regulating new-plant emissions and could need two years to complete standards for existing facilities. Then it must wait months more for states to submit plans for implementing it—which many red states may refuse to do. (The law allows EPA to step in.) That leaves Obama with little time to spare, especially since the rule will inevitably face legal challenges.

A Republican president could more easily sidetrack an uncompleted rule (as George W. Bush did with Bill Clinton’s unfinished work on mercury pollution). But if Obama finishes the EPA regulation, his successor would need a formal rulemaking to undo it—no easy task. A GOP president might find it tough even to stop legally defending a completed regulation, because blue states and environmentalists would intervene to defend it, notes Natural Resources Defense Council Climate Director Daniel Lashof. Most important, Lashof says, once the rule is done, utilities will make investments based on it that “create a momentum that … becomes increasingly difficult” to reverse. As with health care, Obama’s best chance of ensuring that his climate priorities outlast him is to move quickly to create facts on the ground.

View Comments (8)

Recommended for You

  • Hurricane-strength winds batter northern Europe, hit travel

    Hurricane-force winds lashed parts of northern Europe on Tuesday, causing a death in Germany, flights to be canceled, disrupting some road and train traffic and hitting port operations. The Dutch meteorological office issued a code red warning for the low-lying country's northern and coastal…

    Reuters
  • United States submits formal plan for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday formally submitted its climate change strategy to the United Nations, outlining domestic measures it is taking to achieve up to a 28 percent greenhouse gas emissions cut by 2025. The submission lays out how the United States…

    Reuters
  • Air and sea traffic disrupted as 120 km winds batter Netherlands

    Spring storms battered the Netherlands with gusts of up to 120 kilometers an hour on Tuesday, causing Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to cancel flights and the closure of two container terminals at the port of Rotterdam. Gale force winds sweeping in from the North Sea disrupted land and marine…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; 17 dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Heavy rains and a landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed 17 people, police said on Tuesday, as Indian authorities continued working to rescue stranded villagers, with unseasonal rains raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. …

    Reuters
  • Ocean warming suggests 50 percent chance of El Nino-Australia

    By Colin Packham SYDNEY (Reuters) - Recent warming of the Pacific Ocean may signal an El Nino weather event is forming, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said on Tuesday. Climate models indicate the central tropical Pacific Ocean is likely to continue to warm, with El Nino thresholds to be…

    Reuters
  • Vanuatu risks long-term food insecurity after monster cyclone: U.N.

    By Alisa Tang BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The monster cyclone that hit Vanuatu earlier this month wiped out more than 90 percent of the archipelago's crops, putting its people at risk of a secondary emergency and long-term food insecurity, the United Nations warned on Monday. Tropical…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; six dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - A landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed six people and left 10 missing, police said on Monday, as unseasonal rains swept India, damaging crops and raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. Hundreds of people fled their homes…

    Reuters
  • Harsh weather cripples fishing and tourism on Cameroon's coast

    By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame KRIBI, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For over 15 years, Raoul Meno has been fishing the waters off the coastal town of Kribi in southern Cameroon. A bout of persistent heavy rains and surging tides this year has made fishing in Kribi increasingly difficult and…

    Reuters
  • Air Canada plane landed short, hit antennas in Halifax accident

    By Mark Blinch HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - An Air Canada plane that suffered heavy damage in an accident in the east coast city of Halifax on Sunday landed short of the runway and hit an antenna array, losing its landing gear, safety officials said. "They touched down 1,100 feet (335 meters)…

    Reuters
  • U.S. to submit plans to fight global warming; most others delay

    By Alister Doyle and Valerie Volcovici OSLO/WASHINGTON - The United States will submit plans for slowing global warming to the United Nations early this week but most governments will miss an informal March 31 deadline, complicating work on a global climate deal due in December. The U.S.…

    Reuters
  • Modi's popularity in rural India punctured by discontent, suicides

    By Mayank Bhardwaj VAIDI, India (Reuters) - Over a dozen debt-laden farmers have committed suicide in recent weeks in India, and discontent in many rural areas against government policies is turning into anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi less than a year after he swept into office. …

    Reuters
  • Chile desert rains sign of climate change: chief weather scientist

    By Rosalba O'Brien SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The heavy rainfall that battered Chile's usually arid north this week happened because of climate change, a senior meteorologist said, as the region gradually returns to normal after rivers broke banks and villages were cut off. "For Chile, this particular…

    Reuters
  • Mexico unveils national strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico on Friday said it will cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2026, becoming one of the first countries to formally submit its national climate plan to the United Nations ahead of a climate summit in Paris in December. Mexico's Foreign and…

    Reuters
  • Fed must take account of global economy in U.S. outlook: Yellen

    SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve must take the global economy into account when judging the U.S. domestic outlook, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday, noting that a stronger dollar buoyed by weakness abroad may restrain U.S. exports Still, she added, U.S. consumer…

    Reuters
  • In reversal, crash-hit Lufthansa agrees to two-crew in cockpit rule

    Lufthansa said on Friday it would introduce new rules requiring two crew members in cockpits at all times, a swift reversal after its CEO said such a change was not needed despite the crash at its Germanwings subsidiary. The European Union said it would now advise all EU airlines to require two…

    Reuters
  • Sierra Leone capital 'eerily quiet' amid Ebola lockdown

    By Umaru Fofana FREETOWN (Reuters) - The capital of Sierra Leone was "eerily quiet" on Friday at the start of a three-day national lockdown aimed at accelerating the end of an Ebola epidemic in the worst affected country. Liberia has just one known case left and the three countries have set a…

    Reuters
  • Lufthansa to toughen up cockpit rules

    Lufthansa said it will introduce new rules requiring two crew members to be in the cockpit at all times after one of the pilots at its Germanwings unit crashed a plane in the French Alps. Prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 on Tuesday and…

    Reuters
  • Poland to charge two Russian officials over Kaczynski plane crash

    Poland said on Friday it would bring charges against two Russian air traffic controllers over a 2010 plane crash which killed then Polish president Lech Kaczynski, a move likely to damage bilateral relations already strained by the Ukraine crisis. Prosecutor Ireneusz Szelag from the District…

    Reuters
  • Drought, warm weather bring 'smog day' memories in California

    By Sharon Bernstein KINGS COUNTY, Calif. (Reuters) - The brown haze over California's San Joaquin Valley breadbasket on some winter days has been an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days, when pollution hung so thickly that people were warned to stay inside. Years of tight environmental rules…

    Reuters
  • India turns to 'satellite god' for crop mapping

    By Ratnajyoti Dutta NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sher Singh, a farmer from India's desert state of Rajasthan, prays to Varuna, the Hindu god of water, for a bountiful harvest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a "per drop, more crop" approach to farming to make better use of scarce water,…

    Reuters