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Environmental groups say Obama needs to address climate change more aggressively

The new pressure from both sides could have an impact on critical permitting decisions on issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to natural gas exports and federal coal leases. (Nati Harnik/AP)

A group of the nation’s leading environmental organizations is breaking with the administration over its energy policy, arguing that the White House needs to apply a strict climate test to all of its energy decisions or risk undermining one of the president’s top ­second-term priorities.

The rift — reflected in a letter sent to President Obama by 18 groups, including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice — signals that the administration is under pressure to confront the fossil-fuel industry or risk losing support from a critical part of its political base during an already difficult election year.

For years, the administration has pushed aggressively to limit pollution from coal-fired power plants and improve fuel efficiency in transportation while also embracing domestic production of natural gas, oil and coal under an “all of the above” energy strategy. This has angered environmental groups, which reluctantly went along until Thursday’s break.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview.

The criticism came on the same day that the fossil-fuel industry and its congressional allies began separate efforts to challenge the administration’s environmental policies. That suggests that the White House will have to marshal additional resources to defend the work it is already doing to address climate change.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama promised to tackle climate change. How is he doing? Nia-Malika Henderson talks to Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone about Obama's environmental policy. (The Washington Post)

The American Petroleum Institute announced a new advertising and electoral campaign that will promote domestic oil and gas production. At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked the Government Accountability Office to determine whether the Senate can use the Congressional Review Act to reverse a proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from new power plants.

The new pressure from both sides — one demanding that President Obama reconcile his commitment to fight climate change with his other energy policies, the other pushing him to scale back environmental regulation — could have an impact on critical permitting decisions on issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to natural gas exports and federal coal leases.

The environmental groups’ initiative was perhaps more surprising, given their long support of Obama’s efforts to combat climate change.

“We believe that continued reliance on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution and would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption,” the environmentalists wrote in a letter obtained by The Washington Post. “With record-high atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rising threat of extreme heat, drought, wildfires and super storms, America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

The groups suggested that Obama should apply a strict climate test “to all decisions regarding new fossil fuel development,” including hydraulic fracturing and coal mining on public lands, as well as drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Dan Utech, special assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said in an interview that the administration is “taking a number of steps under the climate action plan to drive down emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases.”

“At the same time, obviously we’re going to keep using oil and gas for some period of time,” Utech said. “It’s better to produce these things here than import them. They go together, and they’re not really at odds.”

David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego and an energy expert, wrote in an ­e-mail that several factors explain why the administration’s energy policy is plagued by internal conflicts. Since most of it is done through executive authority rather than “with clean new legislation . . . policy gets advanced on a thousand fronts, each with their own constraints.”

“Some are easy, such as some administrative standards on energy efficiency. Others are much harder, like federal lands policy,” he wrote.

Decisions about whether the administration should allow the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the Canadian border or permit new liquefied natural gas terminals to be built “are emerging as hot-button issues,” Victor added, because there is more oil and gas to be extracted “than people thought even a few years ago.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), co-chairman of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, said in an interview that while environmentalists are right to push for a rapid transition to clean energy, senior administration officials have made it clear in recent weeks that they’re committed to pursuing that goal.

“There’s a real warming trend at the White House toward listening to ideas on how to build a bridge to a fully sustainable energy strategy,” he said.

Jack Gerard, the API president and chief executive who introduced his group’s “America’s Energy, America’s Choice” campaign at the National Press Club on Thursday, said in an interview that the president faces “a test of leadership” on whether he will seize “the chance of a generation to make the United States the energy superpower it can become.”

Lawmakers are trying to block some of the president’s climate initiatives through the omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate on Thursday night. That measure would require the administration to submit a report on its spending on global warming initiatives within 120 days of submitting its next budget request and prohibit it from trying to limit funding for overseas coal plants.

Heather Zichal, who served as Obama’s top energy and climate adviser until leaving the White House late last year, said the administration has pursued policies that target major sources of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when it faces considerable congressional opposition.

“As a whole, what this administration has done is gone after the biggest and most meaningful emissions, and they have an agenda that fits the political environment in which they operate,” she said.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.

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