President Obama came to office promising significant action to fight climate change, and Tuesday night's State of the Union indicates this administration fully recognizes any action on that issue over the next three years will come not through legislation but through regulations and executive actions.
Rather than call for a "comprehensive energy and climate bill" as he did in 2010, Mr. Obama on Tuesday focused on much smaller goals and touted the controversial efforts of his Environmental Protection Agency to cut down on carbon emissions from power plants.
He again drew attention to climate change and cast it as a fundamental issue that will impact future generations, and while he did not call for a cap-and-trade style bill as he has done in years past, he did vow to use his authority to continue combating global warming.
"Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on earth," Mr. Obama said. "But we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods."
Then he vowed his administration would act to limit carbon emissions, but did so without mentioning legislation.
"That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air, he continued. "The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require touch choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say 'yes, we did.'"
Mr. Obama did not specify what the looming "tough choices" will be, and it's a near certainty that Congress will not pass any massive climate-change legislation in the immediate future. There exists significant opposition to such action on both sides of the aisle, including from Democrats in energy-producing states.
In place of such legislation, Mr. Obama's EPA has taken new steps to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, and soon will put forth similar restrictions on existing facilities.
The administration also succeeded in dramatically boosting vehicle fuel-economy standards, steps the president credited with leading to the "cleaner, safer planet" he spoke of Tuesday night.
But the energy industry has slammed the administration's efforts, particularly those surrounding power plants.
"In a puzzling paradox, President Obama decried income inequality while touting progress on his climate-change initiative — bypassing the fact that increased energy costs place an outside burden and lower and fixed-income families and make it more difficult for businesses to succeed," said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
"Regulations spearheaded by his own Environmental Protection Agency aimed at coal-fueled electricity will weaken our economy and our energy security," he said.
Despite the critics, Mr. Obama and his supporters in the environmental community believe much more must be done.
But following the 2010 failure of the so-called cap-and-trade bill, hope for a more sweeping bill have faded.
Mr. Obama now appears content to take much smaller, more targeted measures to address climate change — measures he can take on his own through executive action.
Environmental activists, who have pushed Congress to put a price on carbon, as cap-and-trade would have done, they also now realize that such ends can only come from Mr. Obama's executive power.
"The most efficient way [to cut greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change] is to put a price on carbon, but there's no prospect of Congress taking serious action anytime soon, and the president is right to move forward with the regulatory tools at his disposal," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
The president also lauded the American natural gas boom, primarily due to the perfection of the drilling technique known as fracking, despite opposition from many in his liberal base.
The rise of natural gas, and the fact that it gradually is displacing coal at power plants across the nation, carbon emissions in the U.S. have fallen dramatically in recent years, even without major climate-change legislation.
"If extracted safely, [natural gas] is the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change," Mr. Obama said.
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