How Obama Could Go Around Congress on Climate Change

The EPA has used the regulatory tool on coal-fired plants before. In Dec. 2011 the agency adopted a Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule that established levels for emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases – all of which are considered dangerous to public health. The agency estimated that implementing the rules would cost $9.6 billion. The power industry asserts it's more likely to ultimately cost in the range of $100 billion -- a sum that will have to be passed on to utility customers and force the shutdown of some older coal-fired plants.

The president’s efforts are sure to attract opposition, even from within his own party.

“He (Obama) is absolutely wrong in his misguided efforts to circumvent the Congress with unilateral regulatory actions that will result in job loss, especially when it comes to the EPA’s unfair and inequitable treatment of coal mining in Appalachia, which the Congress and the courts are rightly resisting,” said Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-W.Va.). “I intend to keep on doing all that I can to promote coal and keep our miners on the job producing affordable energy for the nation.”

David W. Kreutzer, research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation, asserted that the scientific basis for Obama’s initiative is growing weaker.

“There have been four more years of no global warming,” he said. “In 2010, there had been no significant world temperature increase for over a decade. The streak is now 16 years long. We have four years of costly lessons on the waste and inefficiency of green-energy subsidies. It is time for the administration to quit using both arguments to justify a regulatory and fiscal power grab.”

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, expressed support for reducing carbon emissions and noted the administration could reach its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 by “cutting emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, tackling methane from natural gas systems and enhancing energy efficiency.”

“By reaching its emissions target, the U.S. can signal that it’s serious about tackling climate change at home while enhancing its credibility on the global stage,” Steer said. “With more droughts, wildfires, and extreme weather events taking their toll around the globe, the world desperately needs more action. And, it needs the United States to be a leader on climate change.”

Natural gas production is on the rise to a great extent, ironically, because of the regulations imposed on coal. But its extraction, processing, and transmission can release methane – itself a potent greenhouse gas.

Obama, in his State of the Union address, hinted that the federal government intends to “encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.”

A study by the World Resources Institute found that some technologies already exist and “can pay for themselves in fewer than three years.”

Standards set in 2012 already target methane leakage from some steps in the natural gas process. But during fracking, a method used to extract natural gas from underground, methane emerges and is burned off – creating carbon dioxide. The administration may therefore consider additional regulations identifying methane as a greenhouse gas.

The president also used the speech to address energy efficiency, setting a goal of cutting energy wasted by homes and businesses in half over the next twenty years.

“The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen,” he said.

The administration already has a Building Technologies Program within the Department of Energy that is looking to develop cost-effective energy saving solutions through “better products, better new homes, better ways to improve older homes, and better buildings in which we work, shop, and lead our everyday lives.”

The U.S. spends more than $400 billion each year to power residences and commercial buildings, contributing to almost 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy. Much of that energy is wasted – 20 percent or more on average. Reducing energy usage in the nation’s buildings by 20 percent would result in savings of about $80 billion annually.

To achieve that, the administration may consider boosting energy efficiency standards on appliances like refrigerators, air conditioners and washers and dryers.

And there is also the possibility that the administration will look into reducing hydrofluorocarbons, a greenhouse gas used primarily for refrigeration and cooling.