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."
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
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.
"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."
Other tools available to Obama to unilaterally curb climate change would be to further modernize federal government buildings and car fleets to increase energy efficiency. Even directing specific departments, such as Defense, to hit energy efficiency goals would move the needle because of the vast size of the federal government, Light says.
And Obama himself made a pitch to the public during his State of the Union address on how individuals can contribute.
"I'm also issuing a new goal for America: Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years," he said. "The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen."