Obama’s climate priorities include legislation, not just regulation

Source: Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013

White House press secretary Jay Carney indicated yesterday that the president’s second-term efforts on climate change could feature energy legislation, challenging widespread perceptions that the administration would emphasize executive actions in the pursuit of carbon policies.

“I think the president has long supported congressional action on climate change,” Carney said at his daily briefing for reporters. “And while it’s clear that bipartisan opposition to legislative action is still a reality, the [president's] position remains the same as it was in the first term. He looks forward to building on the achievements made in the first term.”

Many observers believe the presence of skeptical Republicans in the House and a handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate threatens to undercut climate legislation if it’s proposed so soon after cap and trade stoked opposition in both chambers.

Instead, the popular bet has been on Obama’s use of executive authority, which his administration wielded with success in the first term to negotiate stronger fuel economy standards with carmakers and to propose carbon-cutting regulations for new power plants through U.S. EPA. Both measures will decrease greenhouse gases more than any legislative successes in the past four years.

Carney made it seem as if Obama will pursue both legislative and executive authority actions to address climate change, which the president elevated to a top-tier objective during his inaugural address. Carney described the fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks as the biggest single action to reduce the release of warming gases, and he indicated Obama would build on that success.

Dancing around cap and trade

It’s unclear what type of legislative proposal the president might support. Carney was asked several times whether Obama is still endorsing a cap-and-trade program, which is one way to put a price on each ton of emitted carbon. Carney danced around the question. But he suggested he legislative emphasis might be on developing clean energy rather than on pricing carbon

“Climate change is not — you don’t pursue action that helps deal with that problem just because of the problem itself, but because there are huge opportunities there in alternative energy,” Carney said. “I mean … clean energy technology is going to be a huge part of the 21st century global economy. We can make choices now that ensure that those industries are domestic … that we dominate those fields of endeavor, and we create the jobs associated with those industries here in America. Or we can substitute our dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on imports of clean energy technology.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said legislation should “absolutely” be a centerpiece of Obama’s climate initiative.

“I think the best way to move forward on climate change is wrap it within an energy bill,” Cardin said in the Capitol yesterday. “You can deal with renewable energy standards. There’s several energy-related areas. You can deal with [the] tax code. There’s lots of things you can do in the energy sector that can help you with carbon emissions.”

He said there are aspects of energy legislation that “everyone agrees with.”

A clean energy standard?

Obama has pressed Congress to pass a clean energy standard in his last two State of the Union addresses. His proposed plan would require electric utilities to derive 80 percent of their power from cleaner sources like wind, solar, efficient natural gas and nuclear plants by 2035.

Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, crafted a clean energy standard bill for months before introducing it last spring. It failed to gain traction. Similar renewable energy standards have passed both chambers of Congress in the past, but at different times.

The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report yesterday recommending that Congress pass a legislative package that encourages U.S. participation in the global clean energy sector, which the group says could create $1.9 trillion in revenue between now and 2018. Its topmost suggestion was to establish a clean energy standard.

Some Republicans were mystified by Obama’s remarks on climate change, saying he has no chance of advancing legislation that is connected to an environmental cause that many members of the GOP downplay.

“I can’t imagine what substantive legislation he would be bringing forward,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said yesterday, before adding, “but maybe we’ll see in the State of the Union.”