- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2014

With a divided Congress unlikely to move any controversial climate change legislation, the hopes of environmentalists this year once again will be pinned on the executive authority of President Obama.

Seeking to build his legacy on a core issue for many in the Democratic Party, the president and his deputies in the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere will take several key actions over the next 12 months as part of the federal government’s larger effort to combat climate change, specialists say.

Mr. Obama has shown few reservations about using executive powers on climate and environmental issues. In the final few months of 2013, he took executive action directing the government to prepare itself for “the impacts of climate change” and instructed all federal departments and agencies to dramatically increase energy efficiency and reduce fuel consumption at all government facilities.

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Those and other executive steps — such as EPA action to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants, a move that could doom the industry — don’t carry the weight of legislation that would pass Congress and be signed into law. They aren’t as far-reaching and can be reversed more easily by Mr. Obama’s successor.

But Mr. Obama’s environmental supporters have fully accepted that, in order to accomplish their aims, executive action remains the most realistic path.

That acceptance comes in large part because of the failed 2010 effort to pass cap-and-trade legislation. The bill failed amid stiff opposition from lawmakers of both parties and has left executive action the most likely avenue for concrete action on climate change.

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“I think you take what you can get in this environment,” said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund. Mr. Holstein also was a senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign on energy and environmental policy and served as co-director of the Department of Energy’s presidential transition team.

“Like most of American society, we feel as though no action is an unsatisfactory response from our elected representatives in Congress. We’re very much behind the president’s determination not to give up but rather move the ball down the field,” he said. “We’re satisfied that this is the right way to go.”

The downside to such a strategy, analysts say, is that it’s limited to smaller, targeted areas rather than the sweeping change that legislation could provide.

“You can only go so far through executive action. If you have the legal authority, you can be a lot more creative,” said Robert Nelson, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in environmental issues.

With his executive authority, Mr. Obama has taken a variety of controversial steps.

His administration has put into place dramatic fuel economy standards for automobiles designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The EPA has proposed dramatic limitations on carbon emissions for new power plants that make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired facility in the U.S.

Those actions, combined with requiring greater energy efficiency at federal facilities and directing all departments to develop climate change preparedness plans, represent the most significant executive actions the administration has taken.

There likely will be several more this year, analysts say, especially since John Podesta — who was chief of staff to President Clinton and is a political veteran passionate about climate change and the environment — is now a top adviser in the White House.

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