Obama On Climate Change Faces High Expectations, And High Hurdles, In Second Term

On the night of his re-election, President Barack Obama described grand ambitions for his second term, including a desire to bequeath to future generations a nation not only free of debt and unencumbered by inequality, but also one "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

The laws of both physics and politics suggest he'll have his work cut out for him, and his second-term success will surely be measured on far more concrete terms. The president, after all, faces several lingering and highly divisive decisions, including whether and how to clean up the nation's aging fleet of coal-fired power plants, which pump vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. He also must decide whether or not to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, which would transport heavy, carbon-intensive oil from the scarred landscape of Alberta, Canada, to ports on the American Gulf Coast.

If past is prologue, Obama is unlikely to make anyone fully satisfied.

While many conservatives spent much of the last four years condemning the president as an environmental zealot bent on sacrificing jobs and economic growth to the altar of green, Obama also took substantial heat from his environmental base. A broad collection of conservation groups and climate activists have argued that the president was walking an equivocal line at best, championing emissions reductions, for example, while also embracing expanded oil and gas drilling, including in the delicate Arctic, and continuing his support for so-called clean coal technology, which many environmentalists consider an oxymoron.

To be sure, the Obama administration introduced several inarguably historic emissions-reduction measures over the course of its first term, including tough new fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and emissions limits on new power plants -- both promulgated through the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than by act of Congress.

But even after a year of record-breaking heat, Obama embarks on his second term against the backdrop of a Congress that remains stubbornly divided on questions of climate and conservation, leaving little hope these issues will be addressed through broad-based legislation, which the administration has long said was the preferred route for such measures. That will leave the president with a long list of demands and expectations from his environmental base and only the comparatively narrow corridors of his own regulatory authority through which to pursue any of it -- should he choose to do so.

Last week, leaders of more than three dozen prominent environmental and conservation organizations issued a letter to Obama, calling on him to use the bully pulpit of his presidency to, among other things, place global warming front and center in the national discourse.

Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said the administration has climate change squarely in its sights. "The president has made clear that he believes that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human activity and that we must continue to take steps to confront this threat," Stevens said, ticking off the accomplishments of Obama's first term. The administration, he added, "will continue to build on this progress and climate change will be a priority in his second term."

That assertion -- and a number of other environmentally contentious issues -- will be closely watched over the next four years. Among the hot spots:

Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that if the EPA determined that greenhouse gases were a threat to human health, those emissions must be regulated by the agency under the Clean Air Act. Two years later, the EPA under administrator Lisa Jackson determined just that: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a public health threat. In the months and years that followed, the agency issued new curbs on emissions from cars and light trucks, as well as from any new power plant.

Those rules outraged the coal-burning industry, which currently has no realistic way to meet the emissions limits. Large-scale carbon capture and control technology is decades from commercialization, despite the roughly $5 billion the Obama administration has invested in developing "clean coal" technology. The upshot: the rule effectively prevents the building of new coal plants.

In the second Obama term, environmental groups want more. They want to see those rules finalized, and more importantly, they want new rules for existing power plants, which account for roughly 40 percent of the country's emissions. Just how aggressive the administration will be is an open question, given that it would almost certainly force existing coal plants to shutter. The uncertainty -- along with rock-bottom prices for natural gas -- is driving many utilities to switch power plants to natural gas, which can fuel the plants within the EPA's rules.

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