In a nationwide speech, President Obama warned of future hazards for new generations and launched an ambitious climate plan that could help define his presidency but may expose Democrats to electoral attacks.
Yesterday's announcement featuring carbon reductions at power plants stands to be the biggest achievement in his two terms on the issue of climate change, even if it falls short of his earlier ambitions to price carbon across the economy. Obama looked into the future when describing rising greenhouse gases as a key challenge of this time that could cloud the lives of his children and beyond if it's not addressed.
"Those of us in positions of responsibility, we'll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors and more concerned with the judgment of posterity," Obama said in his speech at Georgetown University, "because you and your children, and your children's children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions."
The proposal to develop rules setting carbon limits on hundreds of U.S. coal-fired electricity plants could fulfill, in part, his promises in 2008 to address rising temperatures, a pledge that was questioned by some environmentalists during the Senate's unsuccessful attempt to set a carbon price in 2010.
But three years of lowered expectations for acting on the issue might have subsided yesterday. In tandem with Obama's policy announcement, he urged Americans to press every level of government for solutions to the emissions that scientists say are contributing to rising seas, heat waves and intensifying thunderstorms.
"And someday, our children, and our children's children, will look at us in the eye, and they'll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?" Obama said. "And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don't you want that?"
The announcement was met by strong support among activists and analysts who have been waiting for federal officials to catch up with scientific findings that show a constellation of impacts on oceans, ice sheets and wildlife from average temperatures that keep creeping upward.
"The ground is shifting on climate politics," said Angela Anderson, who leads the climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The president is fulfilling his responsibility to extend a helping hand to communities that are already dealing with the effects of climate change."
Utility group mildly supportive
Behind the applause for Obama's plan, some supporters warn that the administration faces sharp technical challenges in controlling a gas that has never been regulated in the electricity sector before. Those difficulties threaten to delay the carbon standards until late in Obama's second term or beyond, analysts say. The administration says the final rule on existing plants should be completed by June 2015.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said the timeline for U.S. EPA to finish the rule on existing plants is "ambitious but not impossible."
"I think these are going to be very difficult to do, particularly the existing power plant rule," she said. "I mean, it is very complex."
Her group is working with utilities to determine what a rule might look like, and she's encouraged by Obama's emphasis on cooperating with states and power producers. She said Obama's "explicit statement" about using the Clean Air Act to address emissions is an important landmark.
The allowable emission rates on existing power plants could be more lenient than the rate being applied to new plants, which can't release more than 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. The timing of when existing plants might have to abide by emissions reductions could also be more forgiving than the rule on new plants. Analysts tend to think that older plants will be treated more softly than future ones with the rule perhaps giving them more time to comply with smaller reduction requirements.
"You have to make sure we have enough electricity. And you want to keep it affordable as you can," Claussen said. "Affordable, reliable, sustainable -- you've got to meet them all. Not easy, given the range of power plants."
The first reaction from the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned utilities, was mildly supportive of Obama's plan. Tom Kuhn, the group's president, cautioned EPA to issue rules that are not overly stringent and don't require action under unrealistic deadlines.
Plan 'fires up Republicans'
The criticism was fiercer in other quadrants. Republican lawmakers opened fire on Obama's plan as an attack on coal country that would raise electricity prices and enlarge government.
"The president has always been hostile to affordable sources of American energy that power most of our economy, but this program -- which amounts to a national energy tax -- only escalates his attack," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama's "war on coal" is "also an elusive tax on manufacturing." Earlier in the day, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who leads the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said Obama "is personally responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs."
The attacks promise to carry over to midterm elections next year in which Democratic senators are more vulnerable to losses than Republicans, who could grab control of the Senate by adding six seats.
"Overall, I think it is one of those things that probably fires up Republicans, like it did during that first cap-and-trade debate," Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, said of Obama's climate efforts. "If you're a Republican strategist, you take anything that fires up your base, because you need them to come out."
On the other hand, younger Democratic voters, who often sit out of politics in years without a presidential race, could be activated by Obama's climate plan, she said.
Yesterday, moderate Democrats in competitive states kept the president's plan at arm's length.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is retiring next year, said Obama's speech was "short on details" that matter to West Virginians.
"Any action on climate change is going to have a direct effect on the lives of our mining communities that are already facing great uncertainties, and on the pocketbooks of every one of our middle-class families still dealing with a recovering job market," he said.
Some conservatives approve
Obama was prepared for the fallout.
"Now, what you'll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it," Obama said. "And the reason I know you'll hear those things is because that's what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children's health. And every time, they've been wrong."
Still, at least one Republican who has worked with Obama on climate in the past is not happy that the plan relies on regulations that stand to spark partisan opposition, rather than an effort at bipartisan legislation.
"This unilateral approach through the regulatory process is not the right way to build consensus," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "Rather than giving a speech about how to deal with climate change through the EPA, I wish he would try to pull us together as a country to find ways to become more energy independent in a low-carbon way."
Not every conservative rejected the plan, however.
Andrew Moylan, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank that supports taxing carbon, said Republicans should provide "real alternatives" to EPA carbon regulations. He believes that a carbon tax that cuts other rates, like income taxes, could be designed to pre-empt the administration's power plant rules.
"We think this opens the door for conservatives to engage in a debate where they've been largely absent," Moylan said.
And Michele Combs, president of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, a group launched last year with connections to the Christian Coalition, also sees Obama's plan as an invitation for conservative principles. The group believes that efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are a "family values issue."
"We urge President Obama to work closely with -- not sidestep -- conservative leaders to implement a clean air plan that advances homegrown renewable energy and energy efficiency," Combs said. "Climate policies will have far-reaching impacts on all American businesses and families, regardless of their political affiliations."
Reporters Tiffany Stecker and Elizabeth Harball contributed.