The actions make clear that the president will bypass Congress in seeking to reshape the federal government and the nation’s electricity sector. The aggressive posture also sets up major confrontations with the fossil fuel industry and its Republican allies, who immediately vowed to punish Democrats in elections next year for waging a “war on coal” by setting new limits on carbon emissions.
Speaking to college students and environmental activists at Georgetown University, the president mocked those who disclaim any connection between human activity and climate change and suggested that curbing carbon emissions amounted to a moral obligation owed to future Americans.
“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the crowd, adding later, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”
In perhaps the most significant policy unveiled Tuesday, Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to propose limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired utilities by 2015.
The president also surprised supporters and detractors alike by announcing that he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline — which would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico — only if “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”
It remains to be seen how much practical effect his declaration will have on the final pipeline decision, however. A draft environmental assessment by the State Department found that blocking the project would not translate into fewer greenhouse gas emissions because the crude oil destined for the pipeline would be transported through other means, such as by rail.
Utilities, conservatives irked
Obama’s bold rhetoric — American Electric Power chief executive Nick Akins called it “fervent” — unsettled many utility executives and some conservative Democrats. Republicans accused him of waging a “war on coal” and sought to link the speech to key Democrats who are up for reelection in states dependent on the fossil-fuel industry.
In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II issued a statement saying that his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Terry McAuliffe, and Obama were “inflicting devastating and unnecessary regulatory burdens on Virginia’s coal industry.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is up for reelection next year, sought to draw a sharp distinction between herself and Obama, saying that although both back environmental protections, “I believe that overzealous regulations are harmful to our economy.”