Top White House adviser: Meaningful climate action coming soon

While the Obama administration won’t put its weight behind a carbon tax, it is preparing to “take meaningful action” to prevent a warming planet, the top White House energy adviser said Wednesday.

Heather Zichal, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said tackling the issue will be a top priority during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Obama knows this is a “legacy” issue and is “serious” about making climate change action “a second-term priority,” Zichal said at a forum organized by The New Republic. “We are poised to take meaningful action.”

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Zichal’s comments come as rumors swirl in Washington, D.C. about a possible administrative package of climate change policies to be unveiled as early as next month. That would make good on Obama’s state-of-the-union pledge to address the issue using his executive powers and through federal agencies if Congress fails to act.

Although Zichal didn’t outline specifics Wednesday, one big contender is a proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The EPA already has proposed rules for new power plants, an initiative that has blunted utilities’ interest in constructing new coal-fired facilities. But that measure does nothing about existing power plants, some built decades ago, which account for roughly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmentalists have said clamping down on emissions from existing power plants is one of the biggest steps Obama could take to tackle climate change. And the Obama administration has already committed to eventually limiting emissions from the existing fleet, as part of a 2010 legal settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists.

But the move almost certainly would touch off an ugly battle with Congress, power utilities and coal supporters.

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While controversial, that approach would avoid another contentious idea: a carbon tax embedded into the price of goods and services.

“The president has not proposed and does not intend to propose a carbon tax,” Zichal said. Instead, “as a whole, the president is very focused on implementing common-sense policies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Zichal emphasized that the White House has a number of “important tools that we are prepared to deploy.”

Beyond EPA action on greenhouse gas emissions, she cited Interior Department permitting of renewable energy projects on public lands and fuel economy standards.