Obama Administration Moves Forward on Climate Change Without Congress

The president's climate moves may endanger some Democrats.

Demonstrators march during the 'Forward on Climate' rally in Los Angeles, Calif., to call on President Obama to take action on the environment, Feb. 17, 2013.

Demonstrators march in Los Angeles, Calif., to call on President Obama to take action on the environment, Feb. 17, 2013.

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President Barack Obama is tired of waiting for Congress to move on legislation to reduce carbon emissions, and his administration is poised to move forward on actions to do just that—including a move that will effectively eliminate the possibility of any new coal plant opening in the United States, experts say.

"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence," Obama said during his State of the Union address. "Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it's too late."

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Climate change has been a controversial public policy issue in recent years, as many conservative Republicans have denied a relationship between carbon emissions and incremental increases in temperatures, which many scientists link to increasingly severe weather events.

Democrats, on the other hand, have used the evidence to push for regulations limiting carbon emissions. In 2009, the Democratically controlled House of Representatives passed landmark climate-change legislation but the Senate, also controlled by Democrats, declined to take up the measure heading into the 2010 elections.

Now, with Republicans in control of the House, it's even more unlikely Congress will act on any bill that would accomplish the president's goals, so the president indicated he's moving forward on his own.

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"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

But what can Obama do?

Industry insiders, lobbyists, and experts say the president has already gotten the ball rolling on a host of administrative actions that he was likely alluding to in his speech.

James McGarry, a policy analyst at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional group that supports climate change legislation, says that thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to move ahead with regulating carbon dioxide and some other gases as pollutants, the Obama administration is already working unilaterally to curb emissions but their biggest moves to date are imminent.

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"It's sort of a two-step process," McGarry says. "So the EPA, probably in the next few weeks, is probably going to set standards that any new power plant that's built in the U.S. has to achieve a certain carbon dioxide emissions rate per unit of energy produced."

Those likely standards—limiting emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour—virtually eliminate the likelihood new coal-fired power plants will be built.

"That's huge, because just to look at the numbers, coal fired power plants emit around 2,200 pounds per megawatt hour where a new gas-fired, natural gas power plant is about 900 pounds per megawatt hour," McGarry says. "So in order for any new coal to be built in the U.S. in 2013-2014, they would have to have some sort of carbon-capture technology, which at the moment is economically unrealistic."

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Alisha Johnson, spokeswoman for the EPA, says the agency is working to identify all the options it has available to reduce pollution and transition to sustainable energy sources. She also confirmed the EPA is moving on the rule regulating new power plant emissions.

"The EPA has received hundreds of thousands of comments on the proposed rule for new power plants and the agency is in the process of evaluating those comments; completing that process is the priority for EPA right now," she said via E-mail, though she declined to specify a time line for when the rule would be put in place.

The new regulation, widely discussed in the industry, comes at a time when it makes economic sense for electricity producers to rely on natural gas rather than coal, thanks to the current boom in natural gas production.