What Four More Years of the Obama Administration Means for Environmental Policy

Photograph by Giles Revell

What Four More Years of the Obama Administration Means for Environmental Policy

What environmental issues may be addressed in Washington over the next few years?

By Brad Plumer
Published: January-February 2013

The environment was barely mentioned at all during the 2012 presidential race--no one seemed to think it was a winning issue. Yet in his acceptance speech, President Obama hinted that he was now keen to focus on climate change. "We want our children to live in an America," he declared, "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet." That Hurricane Sandy had just swamped New York City seemed a reminder that climate policy had been neglected for too long.

Experts warn that taking major action on issues like global warming will be difficult so long as Republicans and Democrats are split in Congress. Still, says Mike Daulton, Audubon's vice president of government relations, "There are opportunities for stronger regulation of greenhouse gases." 

For one, the Environmental Protection Agency can use its existing authority to push forward with a variety of pollution rules crafted during Obama's first term. Fuel-economy standards for cars and some trucks will rise to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, cutting U.S. oil use by two million barrels per day over the coming decades. Likewise, new standards for toxic air pollutants such as mercury from power plants are unlikely to be repealed now that Obama has been reelected. As a result, utilities are expected to retire up to one-quarter of coal-fired power plants by 2016, replacing them largely with cleaner-burning natural gas.

The EPA could also take a number of new steps in Obama's second term. These include standards for ground-level ozone pollution, regulating coal ash pits, and tougher low-sulfur gasoline rules. Crucially, the agency will have to decide how best to regulate greenhouse gases from existing power plants and refineries. Many of these rules had been postponed until after the election. 

"Obama was far too timid in his first term on many of these things," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. On issues like the ozone standard, the agency was often reined in by political advisers wary of running afoul of swing states like Ohio. The big question is whether the EPA will now take action; so far it's given little indication.

The White House will also have to make several crucial calls on domestic energy development. The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, is expected to come up for another review in 2013. Environmentalists are pushing for greater federal regulation of natural-gas fracking. The oil industry wants to expand exploration off Alaska's coast. And Obama will have to work with Congress to extend a tax credit for wind power that has bolstered the industry.

All these issues combined, however, make only modest progress on climate change. A recent analysis by Resources for the Future found that the United States could cut its carbon emissions 16.3 percent from 2005 levels by 2020--assuming the EPA imposes strict new rules. That's roughly in line with what Obama promised at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. But in the long term, shifting the country toward cleaner energy will take continued and drastic action by Congress.

On that front, Obama is likely to continue to be stymied. "Whatever the president puts forward," former White House adviser Joseph Aldy said in October, "the Republicans know that their position is the opposite of what he's supported." 

One area where Democrats and Republicans might find common ground is land conservation and expanding public lands, Daulton says. 

"I don't think there's a clear path for climate legislation just yet," says Daulton. "But that doesn't mean there couldn't be a lot of renewed discussion and momentum." At the very least, Obama no longer has anything to lose by trying. 

This story originally ran in the January-February 2013 issue as "Second Chances."

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