The coming climate onslaught: President Obama readies a sweeping list of executive actions.

The coming climate onslaught

President Obama readies a sweeping list of executive actions.

US President Barack Obama reaches for a pen. | Getty

The Obama administration is set to roll out a series of climate and pollution measures that rivals any president’s environmental actions since George H.W. Bush signed a rewrite of the Clean Air Act in 1990 — a reality check for Republicans who think last week’s election gave them a mandate to end what they call the White House’s “War on Coal.”

Tied to court-ordered deadlines, legal mandates and international climate talks, the efforts scheduled for the next two months show that President Barack Obama is prepared to spend the remainder of his term unleashing sweeping executive actions to combat global warming. And incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have few options for stopping the onslaught, though Republicans may be able to slow pieces of it.

The coming rollout includes a Dec. 1 proposal by EPA to tighten limits on smog-causing ozone, which business groups say could be the costliest federal regulation of all time; a final rule Dec. 19 for clamping down on disposal of power plants’ toxic coal ash; the Jan. 1 start date for a long-debated rule prohibiting states from polluting the air of their downwind neighbors; and a Jan. 8 deadline for issuing a final rule restricting greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants. That last rule is a centerpiece of Obama’s most ambitious environmental effort, the big plan for combating climate change that he announced at Georgetown University in June 2013.

On top of all that, the administration is expected in the coming weeks to pledge millions of dollars — and possibly billions — to help poor countries deal with the effects of climate change.

The administration was committed to all these deadlines many months ago, in some cases under court order, after postponing many of the actions until after the 2012 or 2014 elections. Now that Obama is almost out of time, they’re coming all at once.

On deck are even more climate actions that will stretch well into 2015. In June, EPA is due to put out a final version of its rule for cutting greenhouse gases from the nation’s existing power plants — the linchpin of Obama’s entire climate effort.

“In a world that was turned upside down on Election Day, two things are certain,” said Heather Zichal, who served as Obama’s top climate change adviser until 2013. “One: Corporate polluters and their allies in Congress will continue to fight against progress on the broader climate agenda. Two: The president is and will remain 100 percent committed to his climate action plan and he’ll fight to protect it.”

The kicker for Republicans eager to stomp all over the president’s agenda: Congress has little immediate recourse, despite McConnell’s pledges to use “the spending process” to rein in EPA. With so much action rolling through the pipeline, Republicans will have to choose their battles carefully if they want to make headway while proving they can govern.

In an interview after Election Day, McConnell acknowledged that stopping Obama will be difficult, given the president’s veto power. McConnell has also promised a return to regular order, and Republicans probably won’t want to repeat last year’s government shutdown in hopes of forcing the president’s hand.

“I think that actually preventing EPA from moving forward on the climate change regs will be a challenge,” said industry attorney Jeff Holmstead, who headed the agency’s air office during the George W. Bush administration.

If Congress tries to defang “high profile” regulations like those on carbon emissions, “we would expect the president to veto,” said Cal Dooley, a former Democratic member of Congress who heads the chemical industry’s trade association. “And I don’t expect that you’ll have a two-thirds vote in the Senate to override.”

Greens are counting on Obama to hold the line, especially on climate change.

“We are very confident that he will continue to take the common sense steps necessary to make this strong plan a reality,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in an email. “That may not please the climate change deniers, but it is the right thing to do for our health, our economy, and our security.”

On the other hand, a GOP-led Congress could pass agency-specific spending bills with riders that undercut rules that seem less important to Obama. Some Republicans think he might swallow an attack on the ozone rule, for example.

Christine Todd Whitman, who served as George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator, said the Republicans’ new Senate leaders will at least try to hobble the agency.

“It’s going to get harder for EPA,” she said. “With Jim Inhofe as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I think what they’re going to do is starve the agency.”

EPA is not the only agency pushing new rules, however. The Interior Department is also expected to release a long-delayed draft regulation in the spring that tightens limits on mountaintop-removal coal mining.

And Obama’s negotiators are working on plans for an international global warming agreement, set to be signed in Paris at the end of 2015, that would require the U.S. and other nations to slash greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

The U.S. is also expected to announce in the coming weeks how much money it will contribute to an international fund for helping poor countries deal with the effects of global warming. Developed countries have pledged to raise $100 billion a year from government and private sources for that cause by 2020, with some of the money going to the fund. But the prospect of handing billions of dollars in climate aid to the developing world is not going to win much applause from Republicans, who could block the money through the appropriations process.

The U.S. will probably announce its pledge before or during a Nov. 20 meeting in Berlin.

“I think this will be one of the more challenging outcomes of the elections in terms of implementing the administration’s climate plan,” said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam America.

The administration had previously postponed many of the upcoming regulatory actions, most notoriously with the surprise September 2011 decision to squelch EPA’s proposal to lower its smog limits. That decision blindsided both EPA leaders and environmentalists, and was widely regarded as an effort to defuse a major regulatory controversy before Obama had to run for reelection.

Similarly, EPA issued a proposed rule on coal ash in 2010, but sat on it for nearly four years until a federal court imposed a deadline for this December.

Greens are counting on Obama to hold the line, especially on climate change. | M. Scott Mahaskey

All the glare focusing on Obama’s big climate rules means that other items on his environmental agenda are getting less public attention than they once did. That could aid Republicans’ push to weaken some of regulations through negotiations with the White House and EPA, perhaps with deals to delay rules rather than repeal them outright. But that would depend on McConnell keeping the House from insisting on hardcore anti-EPA bills that would be surefire veto bait.

The word from the Hill “is that McConnell really is interested in trying to show that Republicans can get things done, so I think they’re going to try to come up with some narrow bills where the President could sign,” Holmstead said.

Among other possibilities, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) hopes to bring up legislation that would shift authority away from EPA on regulating coal ash ponds. Given the agency’s previous reluctance to deal with coal ash at all, the White House might not fight him too hard.

Efforts to tighten ozone regulations are clearly not a top White House priority either, given Obama’s efforts to punt the rule in 2011. But defying the court deadline to finish the rule — “that’s where it’s going to take congressional action,” Dooley said. The manufacturing industry broadly opposes tightening the ozone standards, which it says could make permits more difficult and expensive to obtain.

Former Sen. Tim Wirth, a Democrat who served as the Clinton administration’s top international climate negotiator, thinks Obama will push through his main agenda regardless of what Republicans come up with.

“He’ll just do what he’s going to do anyway,” Wirth said.

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