President Obama could invoke strong climate policies, like gasoline carbon limits, without congressional input before world leaders convene this fall to negotiate an international global warming treaty, a research group says in a plan provided to the administration.
The report lists a host of quick-start recommendations, some of them controversial, that can be implemented with executive orders, bypassing the cumbersome legislative process that sank Senate efforts to price carbon this summer, according to members of the privately funded Presidential Climate Action Project.
"What we're saying is Congress has decided not to act, but [Obama] can do so," former Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat and a co-chairman of the group, said on a conference call yesterday.
The plan does not recommend pricing carbon, but it urges the president to begin a gasoline standard that cuts carbon intensity 5 percent in five years and 10 percent in 10 years. It also promotes rolling back federal subsidies for the oil and gas industry under the president's control. Obama has asked Congress for two years to slash $36.5 billion in tax breaks and royalty waivers to the industry over 10 years.
Oil and gas companies, the group says, have received $72 billion in subsidies between 2002 and 2008, an example of "classic corporate welfare" that should be invested in renewable energy. The report claims that those financial favors "promote carbon emissions," thereby "contradicting and undermining the President's commitment to reduce them."
An industry spokesman, in response, said it's "palpable fiction" that oil and gas companies are subsidized more than renewable energy firms.
"The president's proposals to increase taxes on the oil and natural gas industry are misguided and worrisome," said Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group. "They would destroy jobs at a time when millions of Americans can't find work."
With Congress unable to pass climate legislation, the emphasis is shifting back to the states. About 30 of them have developed detailed plans to reduce carbon emissions, using a menu of initiatives like offshore wind projects, cap and trade, renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency measures and more.
States can take initiative
Those efforts should be encouraged -- and paid for -- with the president's help, the group says in its report, which urges Obama to create new partnerships with the states that hasten the development of clean energy and provide loans and grants to those that achieve early emission reductions.
If all 50 states enacted climate policies, it would create 2.5 million jobs, save $5 billion in energy costs and reduce emissions 27 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, according to the report. Those carbon cuts are more aggressive than those in congressional proposals.
"There's more than enough [carbon] tons on the table to meet the targets that our president and our Congress have been struggling with," Tom Peterson, president of the Center for Climate Strategies, said on the conference call yesterday.
But while some states have asserted themselves on climate issues, others have not. Ten Northeastern states are operating a cap-and-trade program for electricity utilities, but other states in the Midwest and in the West have struggled to pass legislation allowing them to enact climate policies.
The report also presses Obama to declare an energy efficiency "war on waste," with the goal of making the United States a world leader in power conservation by 2035. And it recommends that the president "reinvent" the nation's transportation sector by flipping current subsidies for building roads to mass transit projects. It also says Obama should finalize his campaign promise to increase the fuel efficiency of new cars by 5 percent a year.
The Presidential Climate Action Project, based in Colorado, commissioned the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado Law School to examine the legal ability of the president to invoke environmental policies without congressional approval.
Obama visits a Ford factory
"A proactive administration with an understanding of the serious implications of climate change can make a significant impact immediately upon taking office," the center determined.
That path might evade the Senate's obstacles, which have brought action in that chamber to a near-stall this summer. But it also arouses discontent among some who see the need for cooperation between the government branches.
"The president has wasted enough time working against Congress," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "He should change course and try working with Congress on bipartisan legislation that the American people will support."
It's not as if Obama has failed to make progress on climate issues this year. His administration developed landmark fuel efficiency standards for vehicles last year, regulating carbon emissions at the tailpipe for the first time.
Yesterday, the president visited a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Chicago to highlight the impact that those new efficiency standards and major taxpayer investments are having on the auto industry. The plant was retooled with the help of government loans to build the new Explorer, an SUV that is 30 percent more fuel efficient.
"This was good for consumers, it was good for the environment, and it finally gave our automakers the certainty they needed to plan for the future -- a future where American workers build 21st-century cars that the world wants to buy," Obama said.