Politics

Obama's Secret Weapon on Climate Bill

The EPA is moving full steam ahead, putting real pressure on Congress.

Rahm Emanuel’s credo of never letting a crisis go to waste is being hauled out again, this time on behalf of energy and climate change legislation. Speaking at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on June 2, President Obama argued that the deeper the U.S. drills to find oil and the harder it becomes to extract that oil, the greater the risk of more disasters like the one underway in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the only practical alternative to drilling is to increase oil imports, including those from potentially hostile states, the U.S. needs to step up efforts to reduce its reliance on oil. The solution according to Obama? Pass the Kerry-Lieberman bill, putting a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging the development of alternative energy sources.

“And, Pittsburgh,” Obama said, “I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months.”

Good luck.

Fewer than 60 days remain on the legislative calendar before Labor Day, when the congressional midterm campaigns begin in earnest. Between now and then, the Senate will be absorbed with business ranging from the annual budget bills to Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Before the Deep Horizon blowout, Arizona’s new immigration law shoved that controversial issue back to the top of the federal agenda -- causing Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to pull his co-sponsorship. And while the Gulf oil spill has galvanized Democrats’ resolve to push alternative energy sources, it has also made expanded offshore oil exploration, a GOP must, a nonstarter. No new offshore drilling means no Republican support, leaving the Dems shy of the 60 votes they need to move ahead on the legislation.

But Obama may have a more powerful weapon to use than the bully pulpit and the oil spill. While he’d prefer to address climate change through legislation, he’s made no secret of the fact that if he can’t do that, he’ll regulate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just spelled out what that means, and it isn’t pretty.

Under a rule finalized last month and published in the Federal Register on June 3, the agency will impose its first restrictions on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from stationary sources.

The first stage will hit firms that already need permits for other pollutants besides greenhouse gases. Starting Jan. 2, any facility already subject to Clean Air Act regulation and that emits at least 75,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year will have to get separate permits for those emissions to build new facilities or modify existing ones. Coal- and gas-fired power plants as well as big industrial operations -- such as foundries, chemical manufacturing plants and refineries -- fall under this. Effectively, it means a moratorium of a year or more on construction of all such facilities.

The second stage, starting July 2011, will apply to facilities that emit no pollutants other than greenhouse gases, with a minimum threshold of 100,000 tons per year --mainly gas-fired power plants. By July 2012, the agency will announce the terms of stage three, this one governing emissions from smaller facilities.

Business groups are already filing a federal appeals court challenge against the new rule. Unless a court issues an injunction (a highly unlikely move), the regulation will go into effect on schedule and will remain in effect unless and until the court overturns it.

Senate efforts to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act -- either permanently, as sponsored by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, or temporarily, as sponsored by West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller -- stand no chance of becoming law. Were either to pass the Senate, it would probably fail in the House. And in the highly unlikely event that it reached the Oval Office, Obama would veto it.

That leaves Kerry-Lieberman, or something patterned on it, under the next Congress. It, too, would limit the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, but it would also impose its own emission controls. For many Republicans, and some Midwestern Democrats, any such legislation would be painful to swallow. But as compliance costs mount, industry lobbyists will lean on Congress to grant relief. That’s when Obama and congressional Democratic leaders will make their real move.

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