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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"Basically getting a coal-fired power plant permit will be impossible. It's done. You'd be a fool to try it," says one energy industry lobbyist who asked not to be identified.

The lobbyist says what's unknown is whether the Obama administration will push further and issue rules to regulate existing power plants, which would be met with much greater resistance from the industry.

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"The industry is kind of 50-50 split on whether they think that will happen; my gut is that that would cause such a disaster, it would be Armageddon. I'd be stunned if they went down that road," he says.

In any case, two big events are likely to be settled before that decision is made, the energy lobbyist says: The administration will issue a decision on the permitting for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and will nominate and try to confirm a new EPA director.

"Every climate change issue is a domino after Keystone," he says. "Purely from a tactical position, if [Obama] votes no on Keystone, it is a disaster across the board. If he does do it, then it will be harder for him to do other stuff."

The pipeline, which awaits a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the State Department, has become a touchstone issue for environmental groups but has the potential to create up to 30,000 jobs. The Obama administration punted on making a decision on the issue prior to the 2012 election and advocates on both sides hope the president will be freer to side with them now that he's been re-elected.

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Another political consideration for the Obama administration is the fates of a handful of Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 who are serving in conservative or energy-producing states.

The GOP is already poised to make electoral gains thanks to key retirements and the number of vulnerable seats up for grabs, and any move the administration makes could be painted with a broad brush against Democratic lawmakers even without them taking a vote on the issue.

"This will place Red State Democrats who are up in 2014 in the crosshairs because the president of their party is proposing policies that will heavily impact jobs and the economy in those states," says Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant.

"It doesn't matter if it's through the EPA by executive order or it's administrative, they're tied to this issue because he's the Democratic commander in chief."

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The concern over the fate of some Democrats comes despite the fact that 62 percent of Americans support stricter restrictions on power plants compared to 28 percent who oppose it, according to a recent Pew Research survey. A majority of Democrats and independents said they favored such restrictions, while a narrow majority of Republicans—48 percent to 42 percent—said they opposed them, the poll said.

Beyond the political implications, the administration will also be looking at how any moves they make impact consumers and the environment.

Andrew Light, director of George Mason University's Center for Global Ethics, says consumers shouldn't be facing an added burden when it comes to the rule impacting future energy plants.

"We're going to see, essentially, the phasing out of the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired plants in the system," he says. "It's not a big problem so far and the power industry is already kind of simply banking on these rules coming into place so they are already diversifying their portfolios, not only to natural gas but to renewable as well."

When it comes to achieving carbon reduction goals, Light says the United States is on its way to meeting current goals.

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"If we measured it by the target that the United States currently has to reduce its emissions 17 percent of the 2005 levels by 2020, then these rules can do most of the work toward hitting that target," he says. "We've already dropped 9 percent over our 2005 levels."