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When President Obama takes the stage this evening for his annual State of the Union address, a likely theme will be how the Oval Office can work toward its goals on everything from income inequality to the federal debt without relying on an obstinate, unproductive Congress. In his speech last year, Obama threatened to sidestep the legislative branch on actions to mitigate climate change, specifically, if Congress failed to provide its own solutions. This year, environmentalists are hoping to hear more details on what that plan could entail.
Some of the major goals of climate policy wonks, like putting a price on carbon pollution, can’t happen without the help of Congress, but that doesn’t mean the president’s hands are completely tied; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report co-authored by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.
So what options does the president have? Here are a few ideas:
1. Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country’s total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president’s climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren’t likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources.
2. Fix fracking: Today, regulations for natural gas drilling companies are mainly applied by states, but the president has an opportunity to influence the industry’s practices when it shows up to drill on federal land. The Colorado State report calls on the Bureau of Land Management to apply stringent rules for fracking on public land, like full disclosure of what’s in the fracking chemical cocktail, zero tolerance for methane leaks from wells and pipes (a major, unregulated source of highly potent greenhouse gases), and more efficienct water-use practices. The president also needs to set a more concrete timeline for how long fracking, often described as a “bridge” fuel between coal and renewables, will continue to be a major source of domestic energy, said Bill Becker, the report’s co-author and executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.
“We recognize that natural gas is a logical transition fuel,” Becker added. “But we think that should be happening a lot faster than it’s happening now.”
Somehow, Becker said, the president needs to reconcile his “all of the above” energy plan with his stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; working with the fracking industry to cut methane leaks is a great place to start.