Obama’s end run around Republican opposition has delighted environmentalists, but it has drawn the ire of business groups and conservatives who argue he is crippling the coal industry, driving up energy costs and hurting the overall economy.
“Environmental regulation should be about protecting public health, and not about creating green jobs and mitigating hypothetical risk,” said Diane Katz, research fellow in regulatory policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Being unemployed and poor from overregulation, or zealous regulation, is a greater risk than global warming.”
When Obama was elected in 2008, environmentalists were confident their most-cherished goals — ending coal-fired power plants, limiting greenhouse-gas emissions and invoking new protections for public lands — were finally within reach.
Following up on a campaign promise, the president backed legislation that would slash America’s carbon output by 80 percent by 2050. Under the proposed cap-and-trade legislation, companies would buy and sell emissions credits allowing them to pollute more.
The bill was passed by the House, which at the time was controlled by Democrats, but in June 2009 it was blocked in the Senate by Republicans and moderate Democrats. When Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections, the bill was dead.
Acting on a strategy
The administration turned to the Clean Air Act, which Obama allies said the president became familiar with while serving on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Using the law’s extensive authority, the administration issued six major environmental rules, including ones that placed limits on toxic air pollutants, greenhouse gases, soot and smog-forming pollutants.
The strategy was bolstered by some outside factors. Its effort to limit carbon emissions was benefited by the natural-gas boom; many utilities are switching from coal to natural gas, which is more economical and emits much less carbon. The automobile bailout gave Obama the leverage to impose tougher fuel-efficiency standards, and the Environmental Protection Agency faced several lawsuits pending from the Bush administration that needed to be resolved.
Obama’s standards for new vehicles, said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, rank as “the biggest move to get us off our oil dependence by any president ever.” The rules, which took effect this year, will require the U.S. auto fleet to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.