Obama Climate Change Vow Could Make EPA a Political Target

Catherine Hollander and Erin Mershon

President Obama’s second inaugural address left no doubt about his desire to put climate change front and center in his second term. He’s likely to pursue his agenda through executive actions rather than legislation, at least initially.

That could put the Environmental Protection Agency at the center of a political battle, as Senate Republicans use the process of confirming a new head of the agency as a chance to weigh in on or even block what they see as regulatory overreach by the administration in pursuit of climate change goals.

Republicans have bristled in the last four years at regulations coming out of Obama's EPA -- Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota wanted to shut the agency down altogether. Administrator Lisa Jackson was a particular target, criticized for her implementation of Clean Air Act regulations and, more recently, for conducting official business using an email alias.

As Obama's second term begins, the EPA might become an even bigger target as Republicans brace for the likelihood that Obama will use the agency's powers to pursue his climate agenda. Environmental groups have urged the administration to use EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to limit the carbon emissions power plants are allowed to produce and to implement stricter standards on leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, both of which can be achieved without any further congressional approval.

Although EPA is the prime symbol of the Obama administration’s climate change agenda, other agencies will also play a role—agencies that are expected to face confirmation fights in the coming months. The Energy Department, for example, can adopt new efficiency standards for home appliances. The State Department will rule on a permit for part of the Keystone XL pipeline that would cross into Canada. Each of those agencies is likely to face or already in the process of confirming a new director, and questions over their views on climate could be part of the confirmation hearings. At EPA, Jackson announced she was stepping down last month, and the administration has yet to nominate a replacement.

Congress isn’t expected to take up climate legislation any time soon. It will be preoccupied in coming months by a series of looming budget fights, gun control legislation, and immigration reform. A sweeping cap and trade bill that Obama had pushed in his first term never made it through Congress. This time, Senate Democrats have indicated they are ready to let the EPA run the show.

So get ready for a show.

Melinda Pierce, deputy director for national campaigns at the Sierra Club, said the hearing to replace Jackson at EPA might be "doubly contentious" if the agency is perceived as a key stakeholder in moving Obama's climate agenda forward.

The focus on climate in Monday's inaugural speech surprisedand pleasedenvironmental groups. But it could also set up a tougher hearing, said Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“During the campaign, President Obama tried to appeal to the coal states. He never once mentioned climate change. He tried at one point to even go to the right of Mitt Romney on coal issues. He didn’t mention climate change until the night of the election after he won. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned climate change and then he mentioned it again this week.... I think that’s going to generate a lot of questions and concerns from members, not just Republicans, but also moderate Democrats,” Wheeler said. Especially vulnerable are the six Democratic senators from red states who will face tough reelection battles in 2014.

What’s more, Wheeler said, now that Obama is in his second term, there won’t be the typical deference given to a new president’s Cabinet selections.

Confirmation hearings are a good place for the minority to be heard on administration goals. “You’ll get good press out of it and, quite frankly, you might not have the administrator come back up to the Hill until the following year,” said David Banks, a former deputy staff director for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

But even if the EPA confirmation fight is nasty, it probably would not deter Obama from implementing his second-term climate agenda. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has a legal duty to issue regulations limiting power-plant carbon emissions, said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, which recently sent an open letter to Obama outlining its recommendations for addressing climate change over the next four years. CATF also believes that the EPA failed to do its duty with respect to regulating emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry during Obama’s first term. “Since those are statutory duties, it really doesn’t matter who is at the head of the agency. Those duties exist if the nominee is confirmed quickly and those duties exist if the nominee’s confirmation process drags out,” he said.

So consider the confirmation hearings a preview of the bigger fight on climate change in Congress over the next four years. Republicans may try to block the new regulations. Obama may try to get another climate bill through Congress. Legislation, environmental groups say, is the best way for Obama to secure the climate-change legacy he wants in the long run.