WASHINGTON — All but giving up on Congress, President Obama has spent the year foraging for actions on various issues he could take on his own, and largely coming up with minor executive orders. But Monday, he will unveil a plan to tackle climate change that may be his most sweeping effort to remake America in his remaining time in office.
The far-reaching plan will for the first time force existing power plants in the United States to curb the carbon emissions that scientists say have been damaging the planet. By using authority already embedded in law, Obama does not need Congress — and so, in this era of gridlock, he has a chance to transform the nation’s energy sector and his presidency.
“There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
He added: “The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way.”
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While the administration was finalizing crucial elements of the plan, it was already clear the economic stakes are enormous. The new regulation could eventually shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Critics quickly said the president’s unilateral plan abuses his power in a way that will cost jobs and raise energy prices.
“The administration has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs,” Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., the nation’s top coal-producing state, said in response to Obama’s Saturday address. “If it succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity — if we can get it. Our pocketbook will be lighter, but our country will be darker.”
In taking on climate change, he is returning to one of the themes of his first campaign for president when he vowed that his election would be remembered as the moment when “our planet began to heal.” His inability to live up to that rhetoric has frustrated many supporters, and he personally urged his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, Gina McCarthy, to draft an ambitious regulation in time to ensure that it is finalized before he leaves office.
Having failed to pass climate legislation through the Senate in his first term, Obama has used his own power to advance his goals, including increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. In seeking to limit power plants, he is finally addressing the most significant source of carbon pollution. “It’s the most important and the biggest reductions that we’ll get,” said John Podesta, the president’s counselor and a prime advocate of environmental policies.
“Finally tackling climate in a significant way, this is a big deal.”
And yet the president seems to have chosen a low-wattage rollout of the plan. He will not unveil it in a televised address or travel to some out-of-town venue for a big speech, as he has for moves of far less import. Instead, he will leave it to McCarthy to announce it Monday, while he plays a supporting role by making a telephone call to the American Lung Association.
That may reflect the complicated politics of the issue. Republicans are not the only ones concerned about economic costs or the political ones. Democrats from coal-producing states are acutely nervous with midterm elections approaching.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., for one, has distanced himself from the plan. “I will oppose this rule as it will adversely affect coal miners and coal-mining communities throughout West Virginia and the nation,” he said.
The new regulation, which must go through a period of public comment before being finalized, will set a national standard to cut carbon from power plants. It will offer states a menu of options to achieve those cuts, from adding wind and solar power and energy-efficient technology to joining or creating state-level emissions-trading programs called cap and trade.
In 2012, the United States emitted 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, of which 2 billion came from power plants, most burning coal. Experts close to the drafting of the rule said they expected it would lead to annual cuts of up to 500 million tons of carbon in the next decade and more than 1 billion tons of carbon annually in following years.
But as recently as last week, according to people close to the process, officials had not decided which year to use as the baseline for determining cuts. The coal industry has pushed for 2005, when emissions were near their peak, while environmentalists want a baseline of 2012, when they were lower, meaning that cuts would have to be deeper.
By doing this through the existing Clean Air Act, Obama will not be able to go as far as new legislation, which would have affected the entire economy.
“It would have been better to get more done, absolutely,” said Carol Browner, the president’s former environmental adviser. “But if you can’t get there, using existing law to look at things on a sector basis is a very smart move.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.