WASHINGTON – President Obama announced an initiative to force a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants — without seeking congressional approval — as part of an effort to address global climate change.

In an address delivered on a sweltering summer day at Georgetown University, the president also said he will block approval of the Keystone XL pipeline if studies show it “significantly exacerbates” the production of greenhouse gases that he maintains contribute to global warming.

Obama told those assembled, which included a substantial number of students, that the nation must act – 97 percent of scientists, including some who originally disputed the data, agree the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it, he said.

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late,” Obama said. “And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

The president’s decision to curtail greenhouse gas emissions comes as no surprise. In his State of the Union address in February, Obama made it clear that the Environmental Protection Agency would promulgate tough new regulations regarding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions if Congress failed to act. Lawmakers haven’t addressed the issue.

EPA has hinted over the past several months that it is contemplating tougher air restrictions on existing power plants – a move that critics fear will set standards impossible to meet and force several facilities to shut down.

The EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act as a result of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In doing so the administration doesn’t have to seek a go-ahead from Congress on the steps it is contemplating.

“This is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock,” the president said.

Obama’s remarks met with immediate criticism, particularly from members of Congress who hail from coal-producing states. Coal-burning power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions and are now a specific target of the administration. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the administration’s initiative will hurt the economy by forcing up energy costs.

“Declaring a ‘War on Coal’ is tantamount to declaring a war on jobs,” McConnell said. “It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy.”

The new White House policy represents a “unilateral economic surrender,” McConnell said, citing experts who maintain that any climate policy that does not include massive energy-consumers like China and India is “essentially meaningless.”

“Americans want common-sense policies to make energy cleaner and more affordable,” McConnell said. “The operative phrase being common-sense — because Americans are also deeply concerned about jobs and the economy. That’s what the president should be focused on. Incredibly, it appears to be the furthest thing from his mind.”

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, was equally dismissive of the president’s views and announced plans to hold a hearing on the administration’s initiative.

“The president’s action plan seeks to limit our nation’s fuel choices and make coal-fired electricity generation in this country extinct, despite the fact that coal is our largest source of electricity and one of the nation’s most abundant and affordable resources,” Whitfield said. “This is absurd when you consider that man-made carbon only accounts for a very small percentage of all global emissions. We will continue our aggressive oversight over EPA’s rules to help prevent destructive consequences on jobs and the economy.”