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.
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.
“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.
This summer, citing authority under the Clean Air Act, the EPA will put forth carbon emission limits for existing power plants. The fossil fuels industry, along with lawmakers from both parties, say that rule is potentially devastating for the American coal industry. Coal still accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Specialists say the administration also is likely to propose limits on methane emissions from gas-drilling sites and other locations.
Last week, the EPA released regulations designed to make wood heaters burn up to 80 percent cleaner, part of an effort to crack down on soot pollution.
But those moves simply won’t amount to the kind of game-changer this administration is hoping for, and much of what can be accomplished through executive authority already has been done, said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani and assistant administrator of the EPA’s air and radiation office during the George W. Bush administration.
“There’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit left,” Mr. Holmstead said. “That’s a real challenge, and I think the White House is realizing there are limitations. Even on the EPA rules, and even though the president has established a very aggressive schedule, all of the heavy lifting will take place after he leaves office.”
Indeed, the highly touted fuel economy standards aren’t fully in place until 2025, theoretically giving Mr. Obama’s successors the ability to slow or alter the policy.
The implementation of the EPA’s power plant rules also will continue long after Mr. Obama leaves office. They also have become the targets of numerous lawsuits as the fossil fuels industry and others challenge the administration’s authority under the Clean Air Act to take such actions.
In the end, the courts could have the final say on how far Mr. Obama can go through executive action.
“The challenge is that by trying to do things with executive action, they’re pushing up against the fact that the statutes they want to use [such as the Clean Air Act] were not designed for that purpose,” Mr. Holmstead said.