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The stage is set for climate showdown

New environmental safeguards on existing power plants are on the way. The policy will spark one of the most important debates of Obama's presidency.
A girl reads a book on her balcony as smoke rises from chimneys of a steel plant, on a hazy day in Quzhou, Zhejiang province in this April 3, 2014 file photo.
A girl reads a book on her balcony as smoke rises from chimneys of a steel plant, on a hazy day in Quzhou, Zhejiang province in this April 3, 2014 file photo.
Going into 2014, it seemed the year's biggest policy fight would be over comprehensive immigration reform. But two parties can't have an argument if one chooses to stay on the sidelines and sit on its hands -- with House Republicans refusing to even consider bipartisan legislation, there's just not much to fight about. The issue is withering on the vine.
The fight over climate policy, however, is something else entirely. As is the case on immigration, President Obama has an ambitious agenda to address a serious problem. Unlike on immigration, the White House is no longer willing to wait for a do-nothing Congress to act.

President Obama will use his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from the nation's coal-fired power plants by up to 20 percent, according to people familiar with his plans, and will force industry to pay for the pollution it creates through cap-and-trade programs across the country. Mr. Obama will unveil his plans in a new regulation, written by the Environmental Protection Agency, at the White House on Monday. It would be the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and could become one of the defining elements of Mr. Obama's legacy. Cutting carbon emissions by 20 percent -- a substantial amount -- would be the most important step in the administration's pledged goal to reduce pollution over the next six years and could eventually shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country.

For those engaged most in the climate fight, this isn't just another piece in a larger puzzle. Rather, using executive authority in this area is arguably the most important thing Obama will do in his entire presidency.
Some readers might be thinking, "Wait, didn't this already happen?" The answer is, not exactly. The Obama administration last year unveiled new safeguards that apply to every new power plant built in the United States.
Next week, the president will unveil rules that will apply to power plants that are already operating, pumping carbon pollution into the environment right now.
We'll delve into Obama's plan once it's available and we can evaluate the details, but in the meantime, the politics of the fight are already taking shape.
On Capitol Hill, for example, some lawmakers are already arguing that it's up to Congress to act (or in this case, not act) on climate policy, and the administration shouldn't act unilaterally.
Folks are certainly welcome to argue about what officials should or shouldn't do, but as Jonathan Cohn explained the other day, there is no doubt the White House has the authority to act.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, first signed into law by Richard Nixon and then amended twice, requires the EPA to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare. As the Supreme Court affirmed in a landmark 2007 ruling, it’s basically up to the EPA to decide what kinds of pollution meet that standard. In 2008, Stephen Johnson, who was then the EPA Administrator, formally told President Bush that the federal government is “compelled to act” on climate change. Bush ignored the recommendation. One year later, Lisa Jackson, Johnson’s successor, issued an official “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases were trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise.... [T]he Obama Administration is carrying out the intent of Congress, as expressed in previously enacted legislation. This Congress is entitled to feel differently than its predecessors did. But to take away EPA's mandate to act, it would have to pass new legislation that supersedes the old. In other words, it would have to amend or repeal the Clean Air Act itself. That's not likely to happen.

While Congress pouts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went a step further yesterday, condemning the regulations no one has yet seen, and predicting economic ruin.
There are a couple of angles to keep in mind. First, we've heard these kinds of doom-and-gloom predictions before -- indeed, they come up in response to all new environmental safeguards -- and they're invariably wrong.
And second, the Chamber's report wasn't quite as powerful as the lobbying group probably intended. As Paul Krugman noted, "The Chamber's supposed scare headline is that regulations would cost the US economy $50.2 billion per year in constant dollars between now and 2030. That's for a plan to reduce GHG emissions 40 percent from their 2005 level, so it's for real action. So, is $50 billion a lot? Let's look at the CBO's long-term projections. These say that average annual US real GDP over the period 2014-2030 will be $21.5 trillion. So the Chamber is telling us that we can achieve major reductions in greenhouse gases at a cost of 0.2 percent of GDP. That's cheap!"
Jon Chair is thinking along the same lines, adding, "[W]hile the study uses lots of impressive adjectives to describe the size of the cost it predicts, the numbers are pretty meager."
Just something to consider as the debate unfolds in earnest next week.