The success of President Obama's second-term climate agenda hinges on a set of regulations now in the works at the Environmental Protection Agency.
His plan to combat global warming through new emissions standards and a shift toward increased renewable energy faces serious opposition from business groups, and Congress is steeling for battle.
But if the regulations survive the attacks — and subsequent legal challenges — they could amount to one of the president's most consequential initiatives, his supporters say.
The centerpiece of Obama’s push is a set of regulations to limit greenhouse gas pollution from new and existing power plants, the source of about 40 percent of carbon emissions.
Obama announced the steps in June, as part of a wide-ranging plan to counter the effects of global warming at a time when legislative efforts lack traction in Congress.
Republicans and industry groups contend the rules will raise prices on home energy bills and at the gas pump, and warn the coal country, unable to meet the new standards, could be put out of business. They're also upset that the administration is sidestepping Congress.
“Because it’s very difficult to pass any legislation, they’re doing more by regulatory actions and executive order,” said Rep. Ed WhitfieldEd WhitfieldWhy Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog What Azerbaijan wants from Israel? Overnight Energy: Green group sues Exxon over climate science MORE (R-Ky), who is chairman of the House’s subcommittee on energy policy. “To think that [they] are really serious about removing coal from the equation of our energy needs is a big, big stretch.”
In September, the administration is expected to unveil a revised set of draft emissions standards for new power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on additional standards for existing plants, to be proposed next June and finalized the following year.
That second round is likely to be more difficult. Energy companies are expected to be especially vocal about their opposition to the rule, and regulators at the EPA will have technical challenges in reducing emissions from plants now in operation.
Power companies and industry groups have flocked to the White House to meet with administration officials and try to influence the final language of the rule for new plants. The regulations for existing plants are certain to attract similar pressure.
Opponents of the plan are hopeful that new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyObama won’t weaken car emissions standards Overnight Energy: Rough hearing for Tillerson Trump's pick for EPA chief could clean up Obama mess MORE will be more receptive to concerns about the plan than her predecessor, Lisa Jackson.
But supporters of the climate push say they’re confident that the transition to McCarthy would not slow their momentum.
“Lisa Jackson has handed the baton to Gina McCarthy, who will run with it,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress.
Most of the climate initiative can be achieved without congressional backing, but Republicans are resolved to fight it through whatever means they have.
Before leaving town early this month, House Republicans approved a slate of bills intended to tamp down on the administration’s regulatory authority. Among them is legislation giving the Energy Department veto power over environmental rules that harm the economy.
The bills are likely dead on arrival in the Senate, but Republicans say they’re just getting started in their efforts to shine a light on the economic implications of the climate plan.
“I think it’s time we really focused public attention on this,” Whitfield said.
Upon Congress’ return next month, Whitfield plans to convene a hearing to examine the plan. He’s already invited 13 agencies to testify.
“I see it as a starting point,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to look at the facts, and not just be emotional about it.”
On the Senate floor, Boxer has helped lead Democrats in blocking a series of GOP measures attacking EPA regulations. “I totally expect there will be more," she said.
While successful in protecting regulations, Boxer and her allies have repeatedly failed to win enough support to pass a comprehensive climate bill.
Obama on Friday blamed industry influence.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen too often in Congress is that the fossil fuel industries tend to be very influential — let's put it that way — on the energy committees in Congress and they tend not to be particularly sympathetic to alternative energy strategies,” he said.
In lieu of legislation, the president has chosen to move ahead via regulation — and it is a painstaking process.
Federal rules, especially major ones, take years to finalize. Even if the rule for existing power plants is completed as expected, which is far from guaranteed, states will not need to submit their implementation plans until 2016. By then, the 45th president will be replacing Obama at the White House.
Supporters say that the Obama has no choice than to act through regulations, given the political landscape.
“It’s great that he’s taking this step through his administrative power,” said Heather White, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. “Congress is going to be a big challenge, as we know. But the science is clear and people are ready and they’re ready for his leadership.”
Delays are likely, too, when opponents of the rule take their grievances to court.
“The more you have these changes coming from executive action and executive interpretations of statutes, you’re going to, on the one hand, get lots of opponents denouncing the changes as sort of ‘Oh, it’s the imperial presidency,’ but more importantly you’re going to have a lot of people who have standing to sue,” said Phil Wallach, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The EPA has proven to be a magnet for lawsuits in recent years, many seeking to strike down regulations.
Currently, there are more than three-dozen cases in which a state is suing the agency, according to data from the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Environmentalists aren’t expecting any reprieve.
“The goal of the opposition to any kind of regulation is to throw sand in the works, to slow it down at every turn,” said Melinda Pierce, a deputy director at the Sierra Club.
Major portions of the climate plan are being drafted under authority of the Clear Air Act, approved in 1970 and amended two decades later. The Supreme Court has upheld the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
But industry groups maintain that Congress did not intend for the statute to be used for that purpose.
“Our position is, the Clean Air Act is not the right tool to be addressing climate issues with,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute.
In addition to the power plant rules, the EPA is scheduled to update regulations governing bodies of water, including a rule clearing up confusion about precisely which ones are covered by the Clean Water Act.
Other items on the agency’s agenda include an updated rule to limit smog, regulations for drinking water, methane emissions from landfills and new standards for biofuel to be blended with traditional gasoline.
If the regulations emerge unscathed, advocates say they would rank along with ObamaCare as one of the president's top achievements.
“I think that if you were to pair it climate and clean energy, this is the other side of the coin in terms of healthcare. This is the other side of the coin for his legacy,” Pierce said.