An emboldened, second-term President Obama on Tuesday made clear that if lawmakers don’t tackle climate change, he will do an end run around Congress and use his executive powers to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.
The commitment — delivered during Obama’s fourth State of the Union address — shed more light on how the president plans to make good on his inaugural vow to combat climate change and revealed he is willing to flex his muscle on the issue.
“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama pledged. “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.”
Although Obama didn’t spell out details, the president could immediately direct his Environmental Protection Agency to impose new greenhouse gas emission standards on existing power plants, going beyond proposed mandates that apply only to new facilities. He also could use executive agencies to steer disaster relief dollars to green energy in the name of climate change adaptation.
Obama also pitched a “drilling for clean energy” plan, where revenue from oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters would be steered toward research into alternatives for fueling the nation’s cars and trucks. The “Energy Security Trust” Obama proposed would be used to support development of advanced electric vehicles, biofuels, natural gas-powered cars and other alternatives to petroleum fuels and the classic combustion engine.
As part of the deal, Obama said his administration “will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
Similar ideas have surfaced on Capitol Hill before. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, included a plan for using drilling revenue to fund clean energy research in unveiling her “20/20” vision for U.S. energy policy last week, though her. And two years ago, as a handful of senators tried to fashion a compromise on climate change legislation, one possible deal hinged on expanding offshore drilling in exchange for new limits on carbon emissions.
“The president was clear about the magnitude of the challenge and resolute in his determination to use his executive authority to take action, especially if Congress won’t,” said former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
But some oil and gas industry leaders were skeptical.
“We will have to take a closer look at the president’s proposals related to taxes and use of revenue from natural gas production to ensure that they don’t have a negative impact on our ability to provide affordable energy and create jobs,” said Regina Hopper, president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance.
Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, said that if Obama wants to make good on his commitment to an all-of-the-above energy strategy, he “must follow through by implementing a national energy policy, lifting existing restrictions in support of responsible development of our vast energy resources, approving the Keystone XL pipeline and standing up against unnecessary and burdensome regulations that chill economic growth.”
Read more: Obama faces angry liberals over pipeline
Obama used his nationally televised address to reiterate his call for America to take the lead in a global clean energy race, leverage the strides the U.S. already has made to expand wind power and drive down the costs of solar power. “As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we,” Obama said.
He also advanced a plan modeled after the “Race to the Top” education program for states that would reward those that make big advances in energy efficiency. Details on the program were scarce Tuesday night but the administration signaled it would be used to support state governments that implement policies to boost efficiency and slash waste.
Echoing previous State of the Union addresses, Obama once again invoked the promise of natural gas, which produces fewer carbon emissions than coal when burned for power. Energy companies are using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract natural gas and oil from dense rock formations nationwide, unlocking previously inaccessible supplies. That natural gas boom “has led to cleaner power and greater independence,” Obama said.
Although the president positioned climate change as the cornerstone of his environmental agenda, he seemed to invoke forthcoming regulations governing hydraulic fracturing and drilling by insisting he wants “to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.”
And while the president stopped short of specifically pledging that the EPA would impose new greenhouse gas emission limits, Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said this is one area where Obama clearly could act administratively, even if Congress doesn’t move first.
“The administration can make significant progress in reducing emissions . . . by enacting standards for existing power plants, which represent the largest portion of U.S. emissions,” Steer said.
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, praised Obama for backing up his “bold words on addressing global warming from his inaugural address by outlining clean energy solutions.” But, he said Americans are “counting on the president to clean up carbon pollution from power plants, which will help the United States fulfill its obligation to future generations.”
Without congressional action, the EPA also could pursue greenhouse gas regulations aimed at airplanes, the fastest-growing transportation source of those emissions.
Lawmakers and energy analysts don’t expect Congress to pass a comprehensive climate change plan, like previous, failed efforts to impose a cap-and-trade plan or tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said it would be best if lawmakers developed a “market-based approach that put a price on carbon” as a way to slash emissions. But if Congress doesn’t act, “many companies are prepared to work with EPA to craft sensible policies meeting both our climate and energy needs,” Claussen said.
Environmentalists widely cheered Obama’s tough climate change talk but insisted a major test of the president’s commitment is coming soon, when the State Department decides whether the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest. That $7 billion project would ferry bitumen to refineries along the Gulf Coast, potentially expanding the market for oil sands crude harvested in Canada using more energy-intensive techniques than conventional supplies.
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, which is organizing a major Keystone XL rally in Washington, D.C. next weekend, said that he was glad to see the president “ratcheting up the rhetoric about climate change.”
But, he added, “the test of that rhetoric will be what he does about . . . the Keystone XL pipeline, with its freight of nearly a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on earth.”
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it was “important that the president acknowledged the urgency of the climate crisis,” but “climate change won’t be solved on rhetoric alone.”
“We look forward to seeing the Obama administration’s plan to cut greenhouse pollution without waiting for Congress but we do know this: It must include use of existing laws like the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution, a significant shift toward sustainable energy and rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic.”