President executing far-reaching orders on climate change initiatives

April 1, 2014 By and    

This year may be a simple one in Congress. House Republicans have said they will not pass any major legislation, period. There will be no tax reform, changes to the Affordable Care Act, gun control or immigration reform.

Republicans have made it clear they do not want to alienate their conservative base in an election year. They also do not want to give President Barack Obama any legislative victories that he or Democrats can use on the campaign trail, as the GOP believes it can take back the Senate.

In his State of the Union address, Obama acknowledged as much:

“But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The steps he refers to will be through his use of executive order and the regulatory process. While this is not new, as many presidents before him have taken similar action, the clear battle lines being drawn are new.

Through the use of executive order, Obama has already raised the minimum wage for some new federal contractors when he was unable to push legislation to increase the minimum wage for all workers. While immigration reform stalled at the end of last year, he deferred deportation of young illegal immigrants. He has also used his executive power through regulation to delay enforcement of various parts of the Affordable Care Act.

The most far-reaching of these orders, executed through the federal agencies, are in the area of climate change initiatives, which the president is promoting for our nation’s health and security. The administration’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Already, Obama has increased the fuel economy for passenger vehicles to 50.4 miles per gallon by 2025. In February, he proposed rules for new fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, to be implemented by March 2016 and apply to model years thereafter.

In January, EPA published its proposed rule to curb emissions from wood-powered stoves, while the proposed standard to raise the efficiency of newly installed natural gas furnaces has stalled. The president has also directed the EPA to issue a national standard for carbon pollution.

Some of the most politically charged actions are over emissions from power plants. In January, the EPA released its proposed rules for new power plants. Critics maintain the rules are not commercially viable and will not allow for new coal plants due to its carbon-capture provisions.

The highly anticipated rule on reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants is already divisive. Opponents fear it will shut down coal plants, which currently provide 40 percent of U.S. electricity. In Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio, where more than 80 percent of the energy is from coal, this is especially worrisome.

The rules will also be a lightning rod on the campaign trail as political opponents and climate change skeptics are organizing their campaigns on the issue of jobs and the economy. Specifically, Republican candidates are running against the “war on coal.”

These power plant rules, if they can stand up in court, will be the capstone to the president’s second-term climate agenda. Where the president failed to pass comprehensive environmental legislation in his first term, he is making up for it through executive power.

Clearly, the EPA and other agencies have their work cut out for them if they are to implement these proposed rules. Environmentalists, however, are worried that if the administration approves the Keystone Pipeline, or even if the tar sands oil from Canada is moved by rail or truck, all of his other executive orders to protect the environment will have been for naught.

A simple year perhaps, but there is a lot at stake.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics and can be reached at

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