Does Obama Have a Secret Plan to Fight Climate Change?

By
Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty

The main reason I wrote my print magazine feature story on the Obama administration’s record and agenda on climate change is that I think huge swaths of the news media are missing a big story. The story is that the administration can complete an aggressive climate change agenda that meets the targets of the cap and trade bill by having the Environmental Protection Agency regulate existing power plants. That’s a big deal — the most important piece of Obama’s second term agenda, by far, and arguably of his whole presidency.

Most political reporters appear unaware of this possibility, and some are aware but skeptical it will be carried out. (Matthew Yglesias: “I think this has the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of actually happening.”) Another example of the latter comes from New York Times reporter John Broder, who writes today:

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency proposed limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, effectively foreclosing construction of any new coal-burning facilities. But just last month the E.P.A. withdrew the proposed rule, saying it needed to respond to public and industry concerns.

It is unlikely the administration would take on the far more controversial and costly project of curbing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants until the new plant rule is completed, or at least much further along than it is now. This week, Gina McCarthy, who is awaiting confirmation as the new E.P.A. administrator, told Senate Republicans in a written submission that the agency “is not currently developing any existing source G.H.G. regulations.” G.H.G. is shorthand for greenhouse gas.

This definitely makes it sound like the administration is screwing around and not planning to use its regulatory powers. Delaying its official ruling on power plant regulation is what you’d expect Obama to do if he planned on doing nothing. But it’s also what you’d expect Obama to do if he were planning to use the EPA’s power. There will be a legal challenge to any new rules, and since Obama has another 44 months to get this done, the overriding factor is to do it as well as possible and minimize the chance of getting the new ruling overturned in court. As Wonkblog environmental reporter Brad Plumer wrote a couple of months ago, “The downside is that revising the rule now would create a delay. But getting struck down by the courts could create an even bigger delay.”

The same is true of the official denials that the EPA is “currently developing” regulations for existing power plants. For both political and legal reasons, it behooves the administration to go through the fanciful ritual of insisting that Congress should pass a cap and trade law before acting alone, to show it isn’t usurping a role Congress would like for itself. That’s why, as I explained, when the acting head of the EPA told reporters last month that existing plant regulation is “certainly something that will be on the table in this next fiscal year,” the agency quickly retracted it and issued formulaic language along the lines of the Gina McCarthy quote in today’s Times.

So what we have here is evidence that’s equally consistent with both the hypothesis that Obama is going to unleash the EPA and with the hypothesis that he isn’t. So the thing to do is to examine the other evidence and see which way it points. I gathered some of that evidence in my story, too. Some of it is the conclusions drawn by inside players who follow this very closely — the electrical utility industry is already assuming that regulations on existing plants will happen.

But the main thing to look at here is the rest of the administration’s climate change agenda. After all, since Obama has this regulatory power at his disposal, the question is whether he cares enough about the issue to give it the attention and assume the potential political risk entailed in using it. My reading of Obama’s record — the green-energy subsidies in the stimulus; the broad array of emissions regulations on cars, appliances, and other things — suggests he cares about the issue a lot.

I could certainly be wrong about what Obama’s up to here. Or, even if I’m right, he could still change his mind. In any case, there’s indisputably a lot of evidence, if not proof, that the administration is preparing to use the EPA to regulate power plants in a way that would meet its international climate goals. Keep in mind, since environmentalists can’t be certain of Obama’s commitment, they have every incentive to keep up the political pressure for him to act until he commits himself.