How Obama Could Go Around Congress on Climate Change

WASHINGTON – President Obama is laying the groundwork for an end-run around Congress if lawmakers refuse to address the issue of global climate change.

Obama unexpectedly used a significant portion of Tuesday’s State of the Union address to urge a reluctant Congress to “pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” a reference analysts took to mean implementation of cap-and-trade – a system that passed the House in 2009 but subsequently was ignored in the Senate.

“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama said. “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.”

The Republican-controlled House has exhibited no interest in revisiting a cap-and-trade system that critics maintain could cause consumer energy costs to skyrocket by as much as 65 percent.

“If the president wants to impose a cap-and-trade national energy tax, I encourage Senate Democrats to take it up,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday, adding, “This isn’t the agenda that Americans are looking for -- and many in the president’s own party won’t support it.”

On the surface there’s little the White House can do without congressional approval. But the president expressed determination to move ahead.

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” Obama said. “Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”

The best option Obama appears to hold for achieving his climate change goals could be the one Republicans loathe the most -- the Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act but only if the agency rendered a legal determination, referred to as an endangerment finding, maintaining that CO2 represents a threat to human health and the environment.

Former EPA Director Lisa Jackson did just that on Dec. 7, 2009, including carbon dioxide among six pollutants the agency maintains contribute to climate change – a finding upheld by the federal courts. As a result, the EPA already is moving ahead on strict standards that effectively ban the construction of coal-fired power plants unless they had the capability of capturing carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, unless Congress acts on cap-and-trade, it appears the Obama administration is prepared to move ahead on limiting carbon dioxide emissions at existing coal-fired power plants, which rank as the nation’s top greenhouse gas producers. It’s an initiative that could wind up costing the industry billions of dollars.

“The president has a full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The best tool he has is the Clean Air Act. It gives him the authority to reduce the carbon pollution from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future. That will take presidential leadership. Americans are counting on it.”

According to the Energy Information Agency, coal is responsible for about 35 percent of the nation’s energy generation, a sum that has declined somewhat as some plants turn to cleaner and more efficient natural gas. Still, about 34 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas production emanates from coal-fired power plants.

Operators of coal-fired power plants may find themselves preferring cap-and-trade to new Clean Air Act emissions standards. Under cap-and-trade, the federal government determines an appropriate amount of emissions that can be released from each plant and then issues permits – also known as carbon credits -- to each plant, setting a cap on the amount of pollutants each plant can emit.

In some instances it’s anticipated that some plants wouldn’t be able to meet the government-established pollution limits. Those power generators would then have to purchase – or trade for -- permits from other plants that come in under their caps.

In effect, under cap-and-trade, those plants that exceed their allowances are punished financially while those who successfully reduce their emissions are rewarded through the sale of its permits. But that trading option won’t be available if the EPA simply implements new, stricter pollution regulations.