Obama flexes his muscle with emissions-reduction plan

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2014

President Obama last night reasserted his power to act on climate change without Congress, using a trip to China to announce new U.S. emissions-reduction obligations that he said could be achieved under authorities he already has.

Obama pledged that the United States would cut its heat-trapping emissions to between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. His announcement — which came together with a new promise by China to cap its own emissions no later than 2030 — is the first and perhaps most significant U.S. contribution toward an international climate agreement to be finalized in Paris next year (ClimateWire, Nov. 12).

It also comes one week after Democrats lost control of the Senate, ensuring that Obama’s climate policies would face strong opposition from a united Republican Congress during his last two years in office. Likely Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already signaled his willingness to use every legislative tool at his disposal to roll back the rules U.S. EPA is pursuing to reduce carbon dioxide and to kill any future plans it might have to limit methane or other greenhouse gases.

McConnell said during a media availability on C-SPAN today that the announcement showed Obama’s refusal to work with Republicans.

“I was particularly distressed by the deal apparently he’s reached with the Chinese on his current trip, which as I read the agreement, requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country,” said McConnell, who cast himself as the defender of Kentucky’s coal country during his successful race for re-election this year.

But by using the Beijing meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the backdrop for this new commitment, Obama has reminded Congress — and the world — that he’s still president, despite last week’s electoral drubbing, said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.

“I think Obama is making a statement both to the international community and Congress, and to the American public,” he said in an email to Greenwire. “The election won’t change his commitment to shape policy.”

Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund, said Obama’s announcement was not directly related to last week’s midterm election and instead showed his commitment to acting on climate change. A group within the White House, headed by senior adviser John Podesta, has been working for months on the United States’ 2025 targets, a process that led Podesta to visit Beijing ahead of Obama’s trip to finalize last night’s announcement.

“There is no substitute for presidential leadership on key foreign policy issues,” said Bledsoe. “Congress simply is unable to act, and the president is reminding us of that.”

The joint announcement by the world’s two largest economies shows a new awareness that combating warming will require cooperation, he said. It could be a turning point, provided China doesn’t try to renege on its promises during next month’s U.N. talks in Lima, Peru.

“Future generations may look back on this as the moment when the world finally got serious about climate protection, just as they look back on arms-control efforts during the Cold War,” he said.

Republicans push back

But Republicans in Congress said that Obama’s new commitments are dead on arrival, especially now that their party will control both chambers.

McConnell said today that Republicans are already mulling a response to Obama’s announcement.

“[W]e’ll be discussing all that with our colleagues here in the next few days before we get ready to take over the new majority,” he said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said in a joint statement that China would profit from Obama’s plans to double down on U.S. emissions. Last night’s agreement would permit China — already the world’s largest emitter of CO2 — to continue to grow its emissions through 2030. China said it will “make best efforts to peak early” and announced its intention to boost the percentage of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to “around” 20 percent by 2030.

But Upton and Whitfield said the agreement would place the U.S. economy at a competitive disadvantage.

“Just when we are finally getting back on firmer economic footing, thanks in large part to our game-changing energy boom, a lame-duck president is working to stack the deck against American jobs, wage increases, and affordable energy,” the two said. “Our top priority must be jobs and the economy — plain and simple.”

And Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is poised to reclaim the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee gavel, blasted the pledge as a “non-binding charade” — especially for China, which could continue to “buy time” through 2030 as the U.S. slashes its own emissions.

“The American people spoke against the president’s climate policies in this last election,” said Inhofe. “They want affordable energy and more economic opportunity, both which are being diminished by overbearing EPA mandates.

“As we enter a new Congress, I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations,” said Inhofe, who has promised to use his EPW chairmanship to exercise rigorous oversight over both the administration’s climate change policies and the science of global warming, which he dismisses as a hoax.

But it is unclear what tools Republicans will have to restrict EPA’s climate regulations. The agency is on track to finalize rules for new and existing power plant emissions by June 2015 and is mulling restrictions for oil and natural gas methane, as well. A decision on the latter is due in the next few weeks, and last night’s announcement might signal that EPA will move forward on those rules.

Meanwhile, a Republican-held Senate might be more likely to pass policy riders and stand-alone legislation to kill some or all of the rules, but those efforts would still need to attract 60 votes to overcome a likely Democratic filibuster. The Congressional Review Act allows resolutions vetoing executive branch rules to clear the Senate on a simple majority. But the rarely used law still requires a presidential signature, and opponents of regulations don’t have the two-thirds majority they would need to override Obama’s veto.

Ornstein said Republicans might use next year’s congressional budget process as a tool to strip EPA’s authority. By attaching reconciliation instructions to the budget, Senate GOP leaders could ensure that EPA-related legislation clears the Senate under expedited rules that include a simple majority.

The maneuver requires lawmakers to argue that EPA policies will have an effect on balancing the budget, but Ornstein said a case could be made. “I assume the rationale will be that curbing carbon emissions reduces GDP and corporate tax revenues, thus worsening deficits,” he said.

Still, that legislation would be likely to receive a presidential veto.

Cabinet pledges support

The president’s Cabinet, meanwhile, offered enthusiastic backing for Obama’s new set of emissions pledges.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy pledged her agency’s support during a call with reporters.

“I think that the targets are ambitious, but they are achievable,” she said. She called the agreement a “significant step forward” that builds on progress the administration has made under Obama’s leadership.

“I am convinced that building on the efforts that are already underway, delivering as we will on the president’s Climate Action Plan and looking at executive authorities that the president currently has — as well as voluntary actions that are going to move forward — that we’ll be able to deliver these reductions,” she said.

She touted steps her agency is already taking to curb domestic greenhouse gas emissions, including a draft rule to curb emissions from power plants, a rule to cut emissions from heavy-duty trucks, and efforts to curb hydrofluorocarbons and ozone-depleting substances. The administration is also working on a plan to limit methane emissions and taking action to address volatile organic carbon emissions from natural gas wells, she added.

And Secretary of State John Kerry said in a column in The New York Times yesterday that cooperation with China would ensure a meaningful global response to warming.

Calling engagement with China “the world’s most consequential relationship,” Kerry wrote that the announcement would pave the way for successful negotiations in Lima, leading to an agreement in Paris next year.

“The commitment of both presidents to take ambitious action in our own countries, and work closely to remove obstacles on the road to Paris, sends an important signal that we must get this agreement done, that we can get it done, and that we will get it done,” he wrote.

And Senate Democrats preparing to enter the minority applauded Obama for using his existing powers to address climate change.

“Now there is no longer an excuse for Congress to block action on climate change,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairwoman of the Environment Committee. “The biggest carbon polluter on our planet, China, has agreed to cut back on dangerous emissions, and now we should make sure all countries do their part because this is a threat to the people that we all represent.”