President Barack Obama laid out a far-reaching set of proposals meant to address the driving causes of climate change, headlined by a new directive to begin limiting carbon emissions for new and existing power plants and the announcement of high environmental standards for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline to be met before his administration signs off on the project.
The president outlined a series of climate proposals he intended to advance through executive action, sidestepping a Congress mired in gridlock in its handling of most matters, let alone politically touchy energy and climate issues.
“The question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science, of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements, has put all that to rest,” Obama said in a major policy address at Georgetown University. “So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late.”
He later added, addressing those who deny climate change science: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.”
To that end, Obama issued a presidential directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin drafting new rules governing carbon emissions from power plants.
“I'm directing the [EPA] to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants,” he said.
And, as his State Department comes under pressure from Republicans, business groups and organized labor alike to approve the proposed trans-national Keystone XL oil pipeline, Obama said that project must be determined to not negatively affect the environment before it can move forward.
“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest,” he said, explaining that "the net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward."
The plan has already received sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who have doggedly resisted the president’s climate change agenda from the 2009 fight over cap-and-trade legislation through present.
“The president has always been hostile to affordable sources of American energy that power most of our economy, but this program – which amounts to a National Energy Tax – only escalates his attack,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.
He and other Republicans gleefully seized on comments made by an Obama energy adviser to the New York Times suggesting the administration should pursue a “war on coal,” the fossil fuel which supplies both energy and jobs in a number of rural and Republican-leaning states.
Obama’s proposals also face resistance from the business community. Thomas Donohue, the president of the politically influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce, demanded that the administration’s rule-making on carbon emissions be subjected to public scrutiny.
“It is unfortunate that on a matter of such importance to all Americans that the administration has chosen to bypass our elected representatives in favor of unilateral actions and go-it-alone tactics,” he said.
Seeming to anticipate these attacks, Obama preemptively dismissed criticism from Republicans and business groups that his proposals would harm the economy, citing similar rhetoric unsuccessfully used by critics of the Clean Air Act or legislation to address acid rain.
“At the time when we passed the Clean Air Act, to try to get rid of some of this smog, some of the same doom-sayers were saying, ‘New pollution standards will decimate the auto industry,’” Obama said. “Guess what? It didn't happen. Our air got cleaner.”
Obama’s new proposals do not require authorization from Congress, where lawmakers have been either loath or unable to cobble together the votes to advance any meaningful climate legislation. Republicans argue for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy, which would loosen regulations on fossil fuel exploration.
But the president’s initiatives seem to come in direct response to a growing perception that any climate legislation faces dim chances on Capitol Hill. Obama called climate change “a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now.”
Obama’s plans did generally win praise from the environmentalist community.
“The president nailed it: this can’t wait,” said Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We will cut this carbon pollution today so our children don’t inherit climate chaos tomorrow.”
"Not only is this by far the most comprehensive and ambitious administrative plan proposed by any president, it’s also common sense and will be very popular with the public," said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. "It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work implementing the president’s climate agenda."