Environmentalists are likely to remember 2013 as the year when President Obama started addressing climate change again.
After the issue all but disappeared from White House rhetoric after the sinking of cap-and-trade legislation in Obama's first term, it reappeared in dramatic fashion in Obama's second inaugural address last January and in his State of the Union speech the following month (E&E Daily, Feb. 13, 2013).
Then in June, the president made good on his State of the Union vow to use his executive power to address climate change if Congress failed to act. In a high-profile speech on a sweltering day at Georgetown University, Obama laid out a wide-ranging plan to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, prepare the country for the effects of warming and engage abroad on mitigation.
With Obama's Climate Action Plan now in full swing, the president's allies say they don't expect him to offer many new climate initiatives during his fifth State of the Union address tonight (E&E Daily, Jan. 27).
But they say he should use the speech to sell the plan to a broader, nighttime television audience and maybe make a pitch for curbing methane emissions.
"I think it's important that he reiterate his commitment to implementing the climate plan from June, and that it receive attention," said Dan Lashof, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I don't know that I'm going to count the words, but it would be disappointing if they didn't have some concrete discussion of the steps that they are planning to implement, even if they are not new."
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said environmentalists had been assured that Obama would use the speech to explain what his administration is doing on climate -- such as new Clean Air Act rules for utilities and greater engagement with states on climate adaptation.
"I think it's more giving the context for and explaining why this makes sense for the country," said Meyer. Environmentalists, he said, have urged the White House to play up the costs associated with inaction on heat-trapping emissions, including the rising toll warming will take on local communities.
Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said Obama should focus on the economic advantages to be gained by embracing more natural gas production, renewable energy and new nuclear power.
"There's a real compelling story to tell that American energy is affordable, that it is getting cleaner, and it is abundant," he said.
Obama need not devote as much time to climate change this year as he did last year, Freed said.
"An administration's actions," he said, "are more important than its words in any one speech."
By linking the climate message to abundant domestic energy and economic growth -- the speech's primary theme -- Obama can undercut the Republican message that climate action is bad for the economy, Freed said.
If the president does say something new, environmentalists say it might have to do with methane.
The Climate Action Plan called for the development of an interagency strategy to combat methane leakage from oil and gas development, transportation and use -- a product that is due out this spring.
Methane from petroleum production has become a priority for environmentalists, too. The Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC and other groups have asked U.S. EPA to consider promulgating a new rule targeting wellhead methane emissions -- a request they have often ranked above a rule governing CO2 from the refinery sector.
"If he wanted to unveil something new tomorrow night, that's an area where there might be enough consensus within the administration that he might be able to say something new," Meyer said.
Obama appears to be weighing action on methane emissions. In an interview with The New Yorker editor David Remnick, posted on the magazine's website last week, the president said the recent natural gas boom would benefit the environment only if production is performed "correctly."
"If it's not done correctly, the methane emissions are profound," he said, adding that chemicals used in production could also contaminate groundwater supply.
"But, if we can get that right," he said, "then for us to see natural gas supplant coal around the world the same way it's happening here in the United States, that's a net plus."
Pitch for international engagement?
Obama might also use the speech to lay the groundwork for future international engagement on climate change, Meyer said.
The State Department is evaluating what the United States should offer this September at U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's leaders summit on climate change in New York. And the administration must propose a new post-2020 emissions-reduction commitment the following March in the run-up to talks in Paris later that year that many hope will produce an international climate agreement.
"I would expect him to say something about the global context of this and the need for joined action and the leadership they've already taken under [Secretary of State John] Kerry with the dialogues with China, India and other countries," he said. In his first year at State, Kerry has made climate change a topic of discussion at numerous bilateral meetings with other countries.
Obama's new senior adviser John Podesta is likely to take a leading role in shaping the United States' climate change pledge.
Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist on energy issues, said Podesta -- the former president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress -- would be unlikely to approve a speech that gave short shrift to climate change. While at CAP, Podesta has taken an active interest in opposing everything from short-lived climate forcers to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, he noted.
"The last guy who is going to make edits to this thing is John Podesta," McKenna said. "It's impossible for me to imagine that the administration is going to have a great, big, giant speech on all their domestic and international policy priorities and John is not going to insert a bunch of stuff about climate change."