April 30, 2009
Obama’s Climate Policy Bind
Cross-posted from Prometheus: The Science Policy Blog
The Obama Administration has painted itself into a corner on climate policy, with no really good options for moving forward. The New York Times characterizes the Administration's recent actions on climate policy as follows:
Has the administration scaled back its global-warming goals, at least for this year, or is it engaged in sophisticated misdirection?
Maybe some of both. While addressing climate change appears to be slipping down the president's list of priorities for the year, he is holding in reserve a powerful club to regulate carbon dioxide emissions through executive authority.
That club takes the form of Environmental Protection Agency regulation of the gases blamed for the warming of the planet, an authority granted the agency by the Supreme Court's reading of the Clean Air Act. Administration officials consistently say they would much prefer that Congress write new legislation to pre-empt the E.P.A. regulatory power, but they are clearly holding it in reserve as a prod to reluctant lawmakers and recalcitrant industries and as evidence of good faith to other nations.
Industry lobbyists and members of Congress who are engaged in writing energy and global warming bills say they are well aware of the E.P.A. process bearing down on them.
"Once the Supreme Court declared carbon dioxide to be a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, E.P.A. had no choice but to act," said Representative Rick Boucher, a moderate Democrat from a coal-producing region of Virginia. "Most people would rather have Congress act. We can be more balanced; we can take into account the effects on the economy. But if we don't undertake this, E.P.A. certainly will."
Still, the agency's regulations would take months to write and years to become fully effective. Meanwhile, Congress is already starting work on energy and climate legislation, though without significant guidance from the White House, at least in public.
Republicans must be drooling over the possibility that EPA will take extensive regulatory action on climate change. Why? Because the resulting political fallout associated with any actual or perceived downsides (e.g., like higher energy prices) will fall entirely on Democrats and the Obama Administration. Far from being an incentive for Congress to act on its own, the looming possibility that EPA will take regulatory action is a strong incentive for Republicans to stalemate Congressional action and a nightmare scenario for Democrats.
Expect the Republicans to call the Obama Administration's "EPA will regulate unless you act" bluff.
Then expect a protracted "you go first" stalemate between EPA and Congress as no one will want to be responsible for increasing the costs of energy.
As the New York Times suggests, some environmentalists are getting restless, but have so far not spoken out too loudly. This free pass on criticism won't last forever.
The administration's caution leaves many environmental advocates frustrated, although most are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of alienating their allies inside government.
One environmental and energy lobbyist with close ties to the White House said the administration had been inhibited by a number of factors, including vacancies in many top policy jobs, an intense early focus on the financial and economic crises, and an unwillingness to alienate business and Congressional leaders with a heavy-handed approach.
"With those realities, coupled with the fact that the president himself realizes this is harder to do in the midst of recession, they are basically content to see what Congress will do," this lobbyist said. "Plus, Henry Waxman has put together a very serious piece of legislation, and that in my mind justifies their lack of forceful intervention. That's just where they are now."