The timing of President Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech on climate change offers perhaps the first public sign of a White House acknowledging a disquieting reality: Presidencies end.
That might seem a remote worry for a president still in the flush of his second term, less than eight months after winning reelection. But the climate task is monumental enough that it could easily take up the rest of Obama’s time in office.
Tuesday’s rollout might give Obama just enough time to carry out the biggest environmental effort of his presidency — if he starts now.
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Myriad factors, of course, go into timing the launch of any major White House initiative, especially one that has been lingering on the president’s punch list since before he took office. (This month marks five years since the campaign speech in which Obama proclaimed that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”)
Among the complications: The president may be months away from the politically fraught decision on approving the Keystone XL pipeline — probably enraging many of the same climate activists he’s now trying to woo. Meanwhile, the Senate is still dithering on confirming Obama’s choice for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. faces a 2015 deadline for agreeing to the next big international climate treaty.
But people following the issue closely — across the political spectrum, from liberal and environmental activists to senior GOP aides — say the major reason for Obama to act now is the sheer length of time it takes to get a major regulation through the EPA’s bureaucracy and past the inevitable legal challenges.
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EPA is expected to be at the heart of the strategy Obama outlines on Tuesday at Georgetown University, including the agency’s first-ever foray into regulating greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s existing power plants.
“If EPA regulations on existing plants are part of the mix as anticipated, that will take a long time — probably years — to put into effect,” said Marc Weiss, a documentary producer who has helped lead the Sierra Club’s Obama Climate Legacy project, which is pushing for Obama to act on climate in his second term. “Best to get that started as early in the president’s term as possible.”
“You need to get the process started,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House aide. “That’s really the bottom line.”
Added Jody Freeman, a former Obama White House attorney who worked in Carol Browner’s climate and energy office, in an email: “I think timing is a function of all the other things that are on the administration’s plate (and it’s full!). Doing this speech now is important because it makes a very public commitment and unleashes agencies like EPA and DOE to move forward. The clock is ticking and these regulations take time.”
Both hard-core Keystone opponents and congressional conservatives downplayed the idea of Keystone being a major factor, even though Obama could attempt to salve greens’ outrage over a pipeline approval by imposing tough climate rules ahead of time. Some observers, including the leading scientific journal Nature, have urged the president to pair the two decisions. But the anti-pipeline activists say nothing Obama announces Tuesday would make Keystone acceptable for them.
“I just think it’s apples and oranges and just two totally separate things,” one senior GOP aide said. “That’s all reading tea leaves that don’t exist.”
On the other hand, the EPA rules alone would stir up a political hornet’s nest, especially among supporters of the coal industry, which may be among the hardest hit. Writing the rule on existing power plants would be an especially huge undertaking since the agency would have to ensure that the regulation could not be easily dismantled by a legal challenge or the next presidential administration.
Before even drafting the rule, EPA would need to work with industry, environmental groups and other organizations to solicit their input, then it would need to wade through the inevitable flood of public comments before issuing a final rule — with lawsuits by opponents certain to follow.
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