Policy center’s emissions plan taps Obama’s powers, assumes Hill inaction

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Obama administration will continue to drive U.S. climate change policy for the foreseeable future, working around a deadlocked Congress incapable of meaningful action, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said today.

Ritter, who now directs the Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) at Colorado State University, said at a Washington, D.C., briefing that executive agencies seemed poised to make the most of existing authority to draw down emissions even as members of Congress continue to argue over whether man-made climate change exists.

Ritter met with senior administration staff on Jan. 13 including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Deputy U.S. EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe to discuss his center’s recommendations for how federal agencies could make the most of existing executive authorities to bend the curve on heat-trapping emissions.

He also testified at a contentious Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Thursday, where Democrats and Republicans wrangled over the legality of EPA’s carbon regime and the state of climate science (Greenwire, Jan. 16).

The differences between the Obama administration and the Senate on climate change were stark, Ritter said.

While the former weighed options for action, the Senate hearing was “just about a debate.”

“It wasn’t about a plan that is going to move this country forward in a meaningful way,” he said.

Heather Zichal, who until November was Obama’s top aide on climate issues, said the president had done everything he could to involve Congress in decisionmaking on climate change. His call during his 2011 State of the Union address for a clean energy standard to promote nuclear energy, clean coal and renewables was intended as an “olive branch” to the new Republican House majority, she said. But there was no response.

“So we started to focus on what can we do under our existing authorities,” she said.

“We know that the imperative was there, that the likelihood of congressional action is next to zero, and that means that we have to use all of the tools that we have available to address this challenge,” said Zichal, who had a hand in crafting Obama’s Climate Action Plan, unveiled last June.

Zichal left the White House as it continues to implement the plan, and has yet to say what her own career plans will be.

The report that Ritter’s CNEE unveiled today, titled “Powering Forward: Presidential and Executives Agency Actions to Drive Clean Energy in America,” is intended to help the administration make the most of its authorities. It draws on input from more than 100 participants from the industry and environmental sectors.

Its 200 recommendations include many actions the administration is already taking or considering, including new DOE efficiency standards for appliances and more stringent standards for methane leakage from petroleum production sites.

Key among its recommendations is that EPA craft an existing power plant rule for carbon dioxide that encourages investment in renewable energy, rather than simply requiring utilities to make minor efficiency improvements at individual plants.

“If EPA gives states, state utility regulators and electric utilities sufficient flexibility, including credit for emission reduction measures beyond power plant fence lines, the regulation will be a market stimulus,” the report said.

Ritter touted his own state’s success with its aggressive renewable energy standard for utilities, and said that the EPA rule — if properly crafted and left to the states to implement — could also help support the expansion of renewable energy.

The former governor said his center had made its report available to members of Congress and expected proponents of climate action to support it and opponents to criticize it. But Congress would play no role in implementing the recommendations, which could all be carried out by the administration, he said.

“They’re not our audience here,” he said. “The audience was really the president and his executive agencies.”