Pundits weigh risks, benefits of Obama himself rolling out power plant rule

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2014

President Obama himself plans to roll out his administration’s proposal next month for curbing greenhouse gases from existing power plants, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said today.

The EPA chief confirmed in a Google+ hangout on the president’s climate agenda that Obama “indicated his intent” to announce the proposal himself — something that she said showed his commitment to it.

Greens say some direct involvement from the president would guarantee the proposal gets the attention it needs to win public support and counter opposition messaging by industry groups that the rules will drive up energy costs and damage grid reliability.

“The president shining his attention on this proposal will help generate much more media coverage than if he does not participate,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “He will be able to deliver the message in a way that will resonate much further.”

Obama has played spokesman in the past for less significant announcements. He took a lead role in the launch of the National Climate Assessment early this month, giving interviews that helped earn the scientific report additional news coverage and making it more useful as a setup for the power plant proposal.

He also participated via recorded message in the 2011 launch of a first-of-its-kind draft rule for utility-sector mercury and air toxics, and earlier this year in the unveiling of a memorandum that called for new greenhouse gas rules for heavy-duty trucks.

Obama set up his second-term Climate Action Plan with a high-profile speech last June at Georgetown University, casting his plan as a fulfillment of the United States’ responsibility to the next generation.

“Someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye, and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?” Obama said then in a nationally televised speech. “And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?”

The rollout for the existing power plant draft would be an opportunity for Obama to be the “persuader-in-chief” for the marquee policy of his Climate Action Plan and allow the president to offer a one-year report card for the climate plan’s other components, Weiss said.

It would also allow Obama to take full ownership of EPA’s still-controversial bid to use the Clean Air Act to control emissions from a sector responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide pollution — a policy that the regulated sector and some states are already preparing to challenge in court.

“I think he staked a lot on this,” said Mark Longabaugh of the media consulting firm Devine Mulvey Longabaugh. “The other side is not going to let him dodge the policy.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has overseen development of the rule, but she should not have the task of introducing it to the public, said Longabaugh, who previously worked for the League of Conservation Voters.

“There is no figure in American society who can command the same amount of attention as the president,” Longabaugh said. “He has enormous power to focus the message when he wants to.”

Obama has the potential to counteract some of the financial resources that fossil fuels advocates are likely to spend in opposing the rule by making a compelling case for climate action, Longabaugh said.

But Tobe Berkovitz, who teaches political communications at Boston University, said Obama would have to balance his desire to promote his environmental agenda and please his base with his need to help vulnerable Democrats fighting for their political lives in what could be a difficult midterm election cycle.

“If you spread yourself too thin on too many issues, then do you end up wasting any political capital you wanted to try to spend?” he asked.

In seeking to earn the climate change issue an extra news cycle or two, Obama might make it easier for Republican challengers to paint their Democratic opponents in energy-producing states as pro-regulation Obama allies who are hostile to the energy industries that support their local economies. It will also dilute the president’s message on other issues, he said.

“The question is, as you’re going into 2014, what issues resonate with the voters who are going to matter in states where there’s a Senate seat up that’s close, or what’s left of any kind of swing House districts?” Berkovitz said.

Economic issues and immigration are likely to make the cut, he said. Climate change may not.

Has the tide turned on climate as a political issue?

But climate change has also become a legacy issue for Obama in his second term. That was reflected in last year’s high-profile Georgetown address.

White House science and technology adviser John Holdren drove home the same point during a briefing last week with state officials (E&ENews PM, May 13).

Holdren said that he and other top policy advisers present Obama and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough with a weekly report on progress made in adaptation, mitigation and international work on climate change — the three pillars of his climate plan.

“This is an organized, orchestrated effort,” he told the meeting of the Association of Climate Change Officers. “Clearly, the president regards this as part of his legacy, to really turn the country around on climate change, and he aims to get that done,” he said, adding that next year’s U.N. climate talks in Paris contribute to the urgency.

Paul Bledsoe of the German Marshall Fund said Obama is “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and shouldn’t scale back his commitment to the issue now.

Obama “might seem to lack the courage of his conviction if he was not involved in the announcement of this centerpiece initiative,” Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe also challenged Berkovitz’s premise that focusing on climate change in the run-up to November would not pay dividends at the polls.

“I just think the president believes that the tide has turned on the issue of climate change politically,” he said.