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On environment, Obama likely to keep walking middle line

His second term is unlikely to feature sweeping legislation on pollution or climate change. Upcoming EPA decisions on emissions limits could be a sign of what to expect.

December 08, 2012|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama speaks at a Keystone XL oil pipeline site in Cushing, Okla., earlier this year. The administration is expected to make its long-awaited decision on approving the pipeline early in 2013.
President Obama speaks at a Keystone XL oil pipeline site in Cushing, Okla.,… (Tom Pennington, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — On election night, President Obama uttered a phrase that thrilled environmentalists.

"We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality," Obama said, "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

Environmental optimists run the risk, however, of ending up like a kid who expected a puppy for Christmas and got socks instead. Those in industry who think that Obama's frequent campaign talk about the benefits of oil and gas could mean opening more land to drilling may also be disappointed.

Over the last four years, Obama charted a middle course on the environment that led to landmark pollution rules, growth in clean energy and the continued development of fossil fuels.

For at least much of his second term, there will probably be no sweeping new legislation on climate, air or water pollution, many analysts say, especially with the House of Representatives still controlled by Republicans who view environmental safeguards as economic threats. At the same time, it is unlikely that the administration will throw open vast new swaths of federal lands to oil and gas development.

"This was not a status quo election, but that doesn't mean the president is going to move on a liberal agenda," said Joshua Freed, vice president of the clean energy program at Third Way, a center-left Washington think tank. "Instead, what the president has done over the first term is a good road map of what to look for in his second."

The White House and entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior and Energy departments will more likely carry on the painstaking work of building out programs and regulations they began in the first term. Some analysts say an incremental approach might stand a better chance than a grand legislative effort to reshape the country's energy sources, cars and air and water quality.

"There are lots of smaller things you could do, and because they're not set up as an emblematic fight, you might miss the fact that things are getting done and getting done faster," said David Goldston, director of governmental affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The administration has yet to reveal specifics regarding a second-term energy and environment agenda and declined to discuss it, focusing for the moment on a deal with Congress to avert the "fiscal cliff."

At a Nov. 14 news conference, Obama said of climate change: "We have not done as much as we need to. You can expect that you will hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward."

But the president went on to say that one approach many environmentalists hope to see, a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, was off the table so far.

The question is how many months and years elapse before that climate agenda emerges. Fiscal and immigration reforms are among Obama's top priorities. Environmentalists said they would like for him to talk about climate change as often as he does about tax reform.

"We want to see him use the bully pulpit of the presidency to elevate the issue," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

For its part, the House Energy and Commerce Committee vowed to challenge any new rules curtailing pollutants including carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.

"Republicans will continue to support a true 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy that lets all sources of American energy compete," said the chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.). "This means stopping regulatory policies that unfairly punish affordable energy sources."

Industry and environmentalists say decisions the administration will issue over the next few months could be indicators of what to expect over the next four years.

Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be set into motion in early 2013, when the EPA is expected to finalize limits on carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, a step analysts contend will accelerate the existing trend of phasing out coal-fired boilers. The next step would be to address carbon from existing plants, a much tougher fight.

By Wednesday, the EPA is set to issue its final rules on soot, the fine particles emitted by power plants and diesel vehicles that contribute to haze and respiratory ailments. The stringency of the final standard could signal the level of the agency's regulatory aggressiveness.

As soon as Dec. 17, the EPA is also expected to issue a report examining the impact on water sources of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial oil and gas production method. The industry, which asserts that water has never been contaminated by fracking, will be watching for hints of possible federal regulations in the EPA findings.

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