WASHINGTON (AP) — Appealing for courageous action "before it's too late," President Barack Obama launched a major second-term drive Tuesday to combat climate change and secure a safer planet, bypassing Congress as he sought to set a cornerstone of his legacy.
Abandoning his suit jacket under a sweltering sun at Georgetown University, Obama issued a dire warning about the environment: Temperatures are rising, sea level is climbing, the Arctic ice is melting and the world is doing far too little to stop it. Obama said the price for inaction includes lost lives and homes and hundreds of billions of dollars.
"As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act," Obama said. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."
At the core of Obama's plan are new controls on new and existing power plants that emit carbon dioxide — heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. The program also will boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. Obama called for the U.S. to be a global leader in the search for solutions.
But Obama's campaign will face extensive obstacles, including a complicated, lengthy process of implementation and the likelihood that the limits on power plants will be challenged in court. Likewise, the instantaneous political opposition that met his plan made clear the difficulty the president will face in seeking broad support.
"There will be legal challenges. No question about that," former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said in an interview. "It's a program that's largely executive. He doesn't need Congress. What that does, of course, is make them (Congress) madder."
Obama also offered a rare insight into his deliberations on whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, deeming it in America's interests only if it doesn't worsen carbon pollution. Obama has faced intense political pressure from supporters and opponents of the 1,200-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas.
Declaring the scientific debate over climate change and its causes obsolete, Obama mocked those who deny that humans are contributing to the warming of the planet.
"We don't have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society," Obama said.
Obama's announcement followed years of inaction by Congress to combat climate change. A first-term effort by Obama to use a market-based approach called cap-and-trade to lower emissions failed, and in February a newly re-elected Obama issued lawmakers an ultimatum in his State of the Union: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."
Four months later, impatient environmental activists reveled in the news that Obama was finally taking matters into his own hands, announcing a series of steps that don't require congressional approval.
"This is the change we have been waiting for," said Michael Brune, who runs the Sierra Club, an environmental group. "Today, President Obama has shown he is keeping his word to future generations."
Republicans on both sides of the Capitol dubbed Obama's plan a continuation of his "war on coal" and "war on jobs." The National Association of Manufacturers claimed Obama's proposals would drive up costs. Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of the coal-heavy state of West Virginia slammed what she called Obama's "tyrannical efforts to bankrupt the coal industry."
"The federal government should leave us the hell alone," said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency handles Texas' environment and energy markets.
Even industry groups that have been friendly to Obama and supportive of his climate goals, such as the Edison Electric Institute, which represents power plants, signaled their apprehension by calling for "achievable compliance limits and deadlines."
Obama said the same arguments have been used in the past when the U.S. has taken other steps to protect the environment.
"That's what they said every time," Obama said. "And every time, they've been wrong."
Obama broke his relative silence on Keystone XL, explicitly linking the project to global warming for the first time in a clear overture to environmental activists who want the pipeline nixed. The pipeline would carry carbon-intensive oil from Canadian tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast refineries and has sparked an intense partisan fight.
"Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama said.
The White House indicated Obama was referring to overall, net emissions that take into account what would happen under alternative scenarios. A State Department report this year said other methods to transport the oil — like shipping it on trains — could yield even higher emissions.
"The standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Announcing he will allow more renewable energy projects on public lands, Obama set a goal to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020 from sources like wind and solar, effectively doubling the current capacity. The set of actions also includes a new set of fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks, more aggressive efficiency targets for buildings and appliances, and $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur innovation.
By far the most sweeping element — and the one likely to cause the most consternation — is new limits on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.
The administration has already proposed rules for new coal-fired plants, but they have been delayed amid industry concerns about the cost. A presidential memorandum Obama issued Tuesday directs the EPA to revise and reissue the new plant rules by September, then finalize them "in a timely fashion."
The key prize for environmental groups comes in Obama's instruction that the EPA propose rules for the nation's existing plants by June 2014, then finalize them by June 2015 and implement them by June 2016 — just as the presidential campaign to replace Obama will be in full swing.
Rather than issue a specific, uniform standard that plants must meet, the EPA will work with states, power sector leaders and other parties to develop plans that meet the needs of individual states and also achieve the objective of reducing emissions.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, contributed to this report.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP
The far-reaching plan marks Obama's most prominent effort yet to deliver on a major priority he laid out in his first presidential campaign and recommitted to at the start of his second term: to fight climate change in the U.S. and abroad and prepare American communities for its effects. Environmental activists have been irked that Obama's high-minded goals never materialized into a comprehensive plan.
By expanding permitting on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energy projects such as wind and solar to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the electric capacity federal lands now produce, senior administration officials said. He'll also set a goal to install 100 megawatts of energy-producing capacity at federal housing projects by the end of the decade.
Obama also was to announce $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.
"While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to act on behalf of future generations," the White House said in a statement, arguing that climate change is no longer a distant threat – the 12 hottest years on record all occurred in the past 15 years.
The linchpin of Obama's plan involves new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Obama administration already has proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed and not yet finalized. Tuesday's announcement would be the first public confirmation that Obama plans to extend carbon controls to existing plants.
"The country is facing a threat; the president is facing facts," said Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council, praising Obama for taking aim at power plants. "Reducing that pollution is the most important step we can take as a nation to stand up to climate change."
A spokesman for major power companies said the industry long has understood the importance of addressing climate change and has been working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for two decades. The industry will consider whether new climate change policies and regulations "mesh" with its ongoing transition to a cleaner generating fleet and an enhanced electric grid, said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents power companies.
Even before Obama spoke, reaction from Republicans was swift and dismissive, reflecting the opposition to climate legislation on Capitol Hill that prompted a frustrated Obama to sidestep lawmakers and take action himself. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said imposing carbon rules on power plants amounts to a national energy tax.
"Will the president explain the massive costs to American jobs? Will the president explain how low-income Americans would pay for their new, higher utility bills?" Stewart said.
Senior administration officials, who weren't authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity, said Obama will set a timeline for putting new power plant controls in place. But he won't issue detailed emission targets or specifics. Instead, the president will launch a process in which the Environmental Protection Agency will work with states to develop specific plans to rein in carbon emissions, with flexibility for each state's circumstances.
Obama also will announce more aggressive steps to increase efficiency for appliances such as refrigerators and lamps, the White House said, adding that stricter standards could reduce carbon pollution by more than 3 billion tons between now and 2030 – the equivalent of a half-year's worth of carbon pollution from power plants. Another component of Obama's proposal will involve ramping up hydropower production from existing dams.
Obama raised climate change as a key second-term issue in his inaugural address in January, but has offered few details since. In his February State of the Union, he issued an ultimatum to lawmakers: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."
"His view reflects reality," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. "We've seen Congress attempt to deal with this issue, and fail to."
Framing Obama's efforts as part of a broader, global movement, the White House said the U.S. can play a leading role in persuading other nations to join in efforts to slow the warming of the planet.
Obama is calling for an end to U.S. support for public financing for new coal-fired plants overseas, officials said, but will exempt plants in the poorest nations as long as the cleanest technology available in those countries is being used. He's also pledging to work with major polluting countries like China and India to curb emissions, building on an agreement Obama struck recently with China's leader to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in air conditions and refrigerators.
Another of Obama's goals – to prepare communities for the inevitable effects of climate change – appears to be more aspiration than concrete plan. Community leaders and environmental activists say that what cities and states need to prepare for flooding and higher temperatures is money – something Obama is hard-pressed to provide without Congress' go-ahead.
Sidestepping Congress by using executive action doesn't guarantee Obama smooth sailing. Lawmakers could introduce legislation to thwart Obama's efforts. And the rules for existing power plants will almost certainly face legal challenges in court.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
Follow Josh Lederman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/joshledermanAP