In his second term, Obama becomes bolder on the environment

August 10, 2013

President Obama’s environmental policies are likely to play a prominent role in defining his second term, even as the budget, immigration and health care still dominate the current political debate.

When Gina McCarthy first met with Obama in the Oval Office on Jan. 10 to discuss the prospect of heading the Environmental Protection Agency, she recalled, “the first words out of his mouth was the need for EPA to focus on climate.”

“He sees this as a necessary part of his legacy,” she said in a recent interview.

Cutting carbon emissions and preparing for the impacts of climate change are the biggest environmental policies the president is pursuing, but they are not the only ones. His deputies are laying the groundwork to manage public lands across broad regions, drawing on high-tech mapping to balance energy interests against conservation needs. They also are preparing to weigh in on a controversial mining proposal in Alaska.

In the administration’s first term, it framed climate initiatives as ways to promote energy independence or cut consumer costs. It also made modest concessions to business interests — such as rejecting a controversial smog rule, which would have affected a broad swath of industries, and delaying other regulations.

President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address promised to tackle climate change. Six months later, how is he doing? Nia-Malika Henderson talks to Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone about whether the rest of Obama's presidency will bring changes in environmental policy. (The Washington Post)

Agency heads were given very different guideposts for the second term as Obama deputized a new team of Cabinet members to enact a series of rules and policies aimed at tackling global warming.

In his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, Obama has a policy manager who has written and contributed to several pieces on climate change as a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank in 2006 and 2007. He is a sharp contrast to former Obama chiefs of staff William Daley and Rahm Emanuel, who both privately saw global warming as a political liability for the president.

The shift has alarmed some industry officials, as well as coal allies. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) described the administration as coal’s “adversary” and brought a state delegation headed by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) into the White House on Aug. 1 to meet with McCarthy and Michael Rodriguez, the White House legislative affairs director.

While Manchin called the nearly hour-long session “very respectful and productive,” he also said it exposed the “deep differences” between politicians like himself and Obama.

“You cannot describe this any differently than as a war on coal, and not just in West Virginia or the U.S. but on a global scale,” he said. “They’re using every tool they have to destroy the most abundant, reliable and affordable resource that we have.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who co-founded the “Safe Climate Caucus” with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and has pressed the White House for years to address the issue more aggressively, said he has sensed “a sea change” since Obama unveiled his climate plan in June.

“It does not appear to be ‘just make a speech and walk away,’ ” he said in an interview. “It appears to be a lasting and real policy shift.”

The Office of Management and Budget — which has delayed finalizing decisions on issues including what constitutes a wetland, tighter energy efficiency standards for commercial walk-in coolers and freezers, and which substances should make the EPA’s “chemicals of concern” list — has agreed to speed up its process and to brief lawmakers quarterly on the progress it is making.

Under Secretary Ernest Moniz, the Energy Department is emerging as a more powerful policy driver. Moniz has launched a Quadrennial Energy Review, aimed at analyzing the nation’s energy infrastructure. Moniz also is collaborating with McCarthy and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to craft a national strategy to address methane, a potent greenhouse gas that leaks from natural gas operations, and he will continue to draft new efficiency standards for buildings and commercial products.

At Interior, Jewell is gearing up to make expanding offshore wind energy a hallmark of her tenure in the same way her predecessor, Ken Salazar, made federal leasing of solar projects a top priority. On July 31, Deepwater Wind won the first-ever auction to pursue offshore wind development in federal waters, paying $3.8 million for two areas off Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Interior will offer additional leases in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts over the next nine months.

In an agency-wide address to employees Aug. 1, Jewell took the unusual step of suggesting that no one working for her should challenge the idea that human activity is driving recent warming. “I hope there are no climate-change deniers in the Department of Interior,” she said.

Still, the center of the president’s climate plan lies with the EPA and its plan to finalize rules in the next two years to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from new and existing plants. In an interview, McCarthy said she and other administration officials still see coal plants as part of the nation’s energy mix “for the next 40 years” but said she was determined “to bend the curve on climate” by setting standards that will require utilities to build more efficient plants.

“The key is not to stay where we are for the next 40 years,” she said.

While White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors is coordinating the climate action plan as part of his job overseeing top presidential priorities, McDonough has convened key meetings with both environmental groups and agency officials.

In a May 13 meeting with environmentalists, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke recalled, McDonough said the president considers global warming a personal issue because it will affect his children. “He said, ‘We’re committed to this, and if you think this isn’t happening, my door’s open, my phone line’s open,’ ” Beinecke said.

The challenge for business groups is to decide whether to cooperate with the administration as it presses ahead with climate rules for power plants and other new regulations or to try to fight it.

“We plan to engage on all these environmental issues,” said Ross Eisenberg, who serves as the National Association of Manufacturers’ vice president for energy and resources policy.

He added that his group “really enjoyed our relationship” with Daley, who played a key role in Obama’s decision to delay a 2011 ozone rule that would have reduced smog but raised costs for businesses across the country.

Other industries that will be next in line for carbon restrictions, such as refiners and steel and cement producers, are concerned the administration’s power plant rules will set a dangerous precedent.

“Whatever they do to coal, that’s the business community’s fight,” said Stephen Brown, vice president for government affairs for Tesoro, an oil refiner.

While the administration has confronted the oil industry as well — Obama recently questioned the economic benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast — the president is far friendlier to natural gas. Obama highlighted it in his June climate speech, and even in private discussions with donors, he touts its economic, environmental and geopolitical benefits.

“He’s actually embraced natural gas,” American Gas Association President Dave McCurdy said of Obama.

When it comes to public lands protection, it remains unclear how much Obama will do. Presidents tend to invoke the Antiquities Act, which allows them to unilaterally protect federal land, in their second term.

Bruce Babbitt, who served as interior secretary for the eight years President Bill Clinton was in office, said that in contrast to the Clinton administration, “There doesn’t seem to be layers and layers of people who care about this issue.”

The administration has been too cautious in putting land off-limits, he argued. “They seem to have fallen back to the idea that unless there’s a hundred percent consensus, they’re not going to use the Antiquities Act in terms of land conservation.”

In a private April 9 meeting with environmental leaders, Jewell said she expected activists to try as hard as possible to get wilderness bills passed in Congress before pressing the administration to declare national monuments. “We’re a last resort, not a first resort” is how Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, described Jewell’s message.

Ironically, EPA could deliver conservationists one of their biggest wins this term: A coalition of tribes, fishing operators and environmentalists are pushing agency officials to invoke its authority under the Clean Water Act to block the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.

The agency is conducting an environmental assessment of the project. White House senior adviser Pete Rouse has told the mine’s opponents that the administration is awaiting the scientific results but will not let the project move forward if it poses an environmental risk, according to individuals who asked not to be identified because the decision was not final.

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