President Obama and a senior aide have created a drum roll in recent weeks for a package of climate change-related policies to be introduced very soon.
But whatever he announces will inevitably be linked to his eventual decision on the Keystone XL pipeline in the minds of many environmentalists, industry leaders and policymakers. At the same time, environmental groups are preparing to go to court to force the Obama administration to complete its emissions rules for new power plants.
Details of what Obama might propose to address climate change are still sketchy, even as the president and his administration build anticipation.
"In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to hear more from the president on this issue, as well as on the agenda," White House energy and climate change adviser Heather Zichal said at a forum last week on Capitol Hill.
She reminded the audience of green energy entrepreneurs and regulators that the president had pledged in his State of the Union address this year to move forward with climate change policies using tools already at his disposal if Congress did not act to curb emissions.
And Obama himself told donors at a private fundraiser this month in Palo Alto, Calif., that he still sees the federal government playing a substantial part in solving the problem of climate change.
Government, he said, "is going to have a role to play in helping to organize clean energy research, and making sure that we're taking into account the pollution that we're sending into the air and that we're encouraging new ways of delivering energy and using it more efficiently."
Late last week, Bloomberg and other media outlets reported that Obama had frequently invoked a coming climate change package in recent weeks at West Coast fundraisers, especially when approached by opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The policies would be unveiled in July, the Bloomberg article said.
Neither Zichal nor her boss provided policy specifics. She said that the administration would "continue to build" on past efforts to use the Clean Air Act to "advance a broader climate agenda." This might indicate that the president will finally acknowledge plans to craft a carbon dioxide rule for existing power plants, which contribute 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The administration has held for more than a year that it has "no plans" to promulgate such a rule, despite being bound to do so under the terms of a 2010 settlement agreement.
Zichal's statement might also be taken more broadly. Clean Air Act rules can be drafted to regulate CO2 from other industrial sectors. In fact, EPA has promised under another settlement agreement to promulgate rules for new and existing oil refineries. It has blown past deadlines to propose and finalize those rules, just as it has for power plants.
EPA exceeded a statutory deadline to finalize last year's proposed new power plants rule, and environmentalists are preparing to file suit as soon as today to compel the agency to complete the rule.
"It is EPA's responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect our families and our communities from the largest single source of carbon pollution in our country," Megan Ceronsky, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said late last week. "The fires blazing in Colorado today and the severe storms that have been devastating communities around the country are a terrible witness to the urgency of acting now."
Zichal also referenced a list of policies the administration has always espoused and that have figured in numerous administration budgets. These included more efficiency rules for buildings, more renewable energy production and transmission on federal lands, and rolling back fossil fuels subsidies. Any of these might resurface in next month's announcement.
A pre-emptive strike?
If the president makes a high-profile statement on climate change next month, it will likely come before his administration issues a verdict on Keystone XL. Obama increasingly is considered likely to approve the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, dealing a heavy blow to the environmental organizations that turned out for him during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
Former White House staffer Paul Bledsoe said the timing of this climate announcement is "very conspicuous."
"Initially most people thought that the Keystone decision would come before Obama laid out his broader climate strategy," he said. "Instead, he is likely to disappoint the environmental community on Keystone and so is consciously announcing his broader plans on EPA regulation before the Keystone decision."
The president would not roll out a proposal for existing power plants, Bledsoe said, but would "signal his intent" that EPA promulgate such a rule.
What other policies might be included in the package remains to be seen. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the co-chairmen the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, are compiling a list of actions the administration could take on its own to draw down emissions.
The two met recently with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to discuss their ideas. They refused last week to give specifics about the meeting, but Waxman said in a brief interview that the administration could make additional strides in improving building efficiency -- not only for its own buildings, but by setting energy efficiency standards for the private sector.
It could also follow up its recent announcement with China with additional steps to draw down the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are many times more heat-trapping than CO2, Waxman said.
The rollout itself might allow the president to highlight the long-term impacts climate change could have on the United States -- making a down payment on the "national conversation" Obama promised after he won re-election last fall, Bledsoe said.
By showing how he planned to address climate change in his second term, the president might provide environmentalists with "context" for his Keystone XL decision, Bledsoe said.
But environmentalists have dismissed this kind of trade-off -- Keystone XL for carbon regulations -- as political "horse trading." They have promised to push back against the president they helped elect if he betrays them on either Keystone XL or the Clean Air Act.
"Top scientists across the country tell us that fully exploiting the Alberta tar sands reserve would cause dramatic increases in carbon emissions and greatly exacerbate global climate change," said Joshua Saks of the National Wildlife Federation. "We cannot see any way the president can mitigate those impacts by anything that may be included in his upcoming announcement."
"Climate action coupled with approval of Keystone XL would be like deep frying broccoli coated in sugar and arguing that it's still healthy for you," he added.
Chris Lehane, a spokesman for billionaire Obama backer Tom Steyer, who has thrown his weight behind the movement to reject Keystone XL (see related story), called the regs-for-pipeline swap a "false choice."
"The reason Keystone is so critical is not merely because of the symbolism, but because it is a 40-year commitment to shipping some of the dirtiest oil over U.S. land so it can be shipped as a cheap source of energy to our economic competitors in Asia while generating billions for a foreign oil company and doing little to benefit the U.S.," Lehane said.
If Obama is hoping to defuse environmentalist push-back over subsequent approval of Keystone XL with a high-profile carbon reduction announcement, he would be sorely disappointed, he said.
"Whether the policy and rejection happen in one fell swoop or are sequenced out is not the issue," Lehane said. "The issue is that it is good policy to put out a plan and reject Keystone."
Mining industry warns of 'a backroom deal'
The intensity of environmental push-back on Keystone XL appears to make it less likely that EPA and the White House's Office of Management and Budget will issue a new power plant rule that is less stringent than the one proposed in April 2012. The rule has been delayed, perhaps to give the Senate a chance to vote on the nomination of agency air chief Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator. Industry advocates say EPA might be rethinking the rule that would require coal-fired plants to achieve the same CO2 performance as gas-fired power plants -- a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.
The coal industry hopes that EPA will create a less stringent standard for coal-fired power plants. But with a likely nod for Keystone XL in the pipeline, as it were, other observers say it is unlikely that Obama would risk further angering environmentalists over the power plant rule.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said EPA officials should stick to their guns despite any new legal challenge by environmentalists and give the agency time to weigh the more than 2 million comments it received on the new source performance standard before issuing a final rule. And the eventual rule should not be a product of a "backroom deal," he said.
On the XL-for-EPA rules question, Popovich said: "Horse trading has no place in public policy that can affect so many different areas of the economy, and employment and states for such a long time."
He proposed that the administration announce new funding for carbon capture and storage research and development if it wanted to draw down coal-fired power plant emissions, not roll out a new rule that he said would effectively bar the construction of those plants.
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.
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