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Obama, the EPA, and environmental opportunities

This week, in particular, the Republican approach to environmental policy came into sharp focus. GOP senators are blocking President Obama's nominee to head the
Obama, the EPA, and environmental opportunities
Obama, the EPA, and environmental opportunities

This week, in particular, the Republican approach to environmental policy came into sharp focus. GOP senators are blocking President Obama's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, boycotting Gina McCarthy's confirmation hearing and instead holding fundraisers with energy-industry lobbyists.

But what about the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

The conventional wisdom certainly has merit -- Obama has set worthwhile environmental goals, but progress has been slow, in part because congressional Republicans have made it impossible to pass legislation, even a cap-and-trade policy that GOP leaders championed as recently as 2008. Carbon emissions have sharply improved, but there's no credible reason to give administration policies too much credit, since the reductions are largely the result of the recession and the fracking boom.

Jonathan Chait, however, this week challenges some of the assumptions in an interesting piece and gives Obama more credit for "amassing an impressive record" than he usually receives.

He has done quite a bit, probably far more than you think, and not all of it advertised as climate legislation, or advertised as much of anything at all. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was many things -- primarily, a desperate bid to shove money into enough Americans' pockets to prevent another Great Depression -- but one of them was a major piece of environmental reform. The law contained upwards of $90 billion in subsidies for green energy, which had a catalyzing effect on burgeoning industries. American wind-power generation has doubled, and solar power has increased more than six times over.... [T]he wave of innovation -- new fuels, plus turbines, energy meters, and other futuristic devices -- will reverberate for years. [...]The administration has also carried out an ambitious program of regulation, having imposed or announced higher standards for gas mileage in cars, fuel cleanliness, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions from new power plants. In aggregate, they amount to a major assault on climate change. Some environmentalists judge them to be insufficient -- a fair critique -- but many more Obama supporters aren't even aware that they exist.

Fair enough, but what about looking ahead? Chait's thesis is slightly more provocative on what the Obama White House might yet do in its second term. Cap and trade appears to be dead, at least without an unexpected Democratic wave in the 2014 midterms, but there is another opportunity for the president to combat climate change in a sweeping way without Congress.

[A] few weeks after last year's election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions. It sounds simple, but this was a conceptual breakthrough. Much like a cap-and-trade bill, it would allow market signals to indicate the most efficient ways for states to hit their targets -- instead of shutting coal plants down, some utilities might pay consumers to weatherize their homes, while others might switch some of their generators over to cleaner fuels. The flexibility of the scheme would, in turn, reduce the costs passed on to consumers. Here is a way for Obama to use his powers -- his own powers, unencumbered by the morass of a dysfunctional Congress -- in such a way that is neither as ineffectual as a firecracker nor as devastating as a nuke: The NRDC calculates its plan would reduce our reliance on coal by about a quarter and national carbon emissions by 10 percent.This is the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era. The prospect, for environmentalists, is exhilarating but also harrowing. The struggle will be lengthy, waged largely behind closed doors, and its outcome won't be known until the Obama presidency is nearly over.

Is this something the president is serious about pursuing? It's hard to say with confidence either way, though it's worth noting that Obama's State of the Union address included an implicit threat that Republicans probably recognized: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

For now, it's a story well worth watching. I rather doubt we'll see officials committing to any specific course, but this regulatory approach has the benefit of (a) being entirely legal; (b) not needing congressional approval; and (c) efficacy in dealing with a genuine global crisis.