Will Obama's Climate Promises Come To Naught?

by The New Republic | August 26, 2008

Suppose Barack Obama actually wins this interminable election and decides to start wrestling carbon-dioxide emissions to the ground. He gives a pretty State of the Union address and implores Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill, but the darn thing dies in the Senate quicksand. Does that mean game over? Not necessarily, according to The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama camp also believes it has a regulatory stick to force congressional action. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. While the Bush administration has taken a go-slow approach, a President Obama would shift into high gear, says Elgie Holstein, a senior Obama energy adviser. If Congress didn't act on a cap-and-trade system, he says, Mr. Obama "wouldn't hesitate to use Clean Air Act authorization to regulate" CO2 emissions, a step that could involve a huge increase in EPA oversight of industry.

This scenario needs closer scrutiny, since it looks increasingly plausible. One obvious problem: The EPA is understaffed as is, and doesn't have much experience regulating carbon—plopping broad new authority on its lap would be unwieldy. (Of course, this is a hurdle for cap-and-trade legislation, too, but presumably Congress could hand the EPA what resources it needs.) Plus, in theory, command-and-control regulation is less efficient than a trading system for pollution credits. That said, an Obama administration could threaten to use its Clean Air Act authority to persuade emitters to rally behind cap-and-trade legislation, so maybe this is part of a broader political strategy.

Relatedly, New York and eleven other states are now suing the EPA again, this time over its failure to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from refineries. If Congress doesn't pass any sort of climate legislation in the next few years (and with energy prices still high, momentum isn't exactly chugging along), odds are decent that the agency will soon step in, no matter who's in the White House.

P.S. The whole Journal article's interesting. Evidently, the Obama campaign's discussing internally whether to do health care or climate change first, should he get elected. Some advisers think climate is easier, since serious cap-and-trade bills have already been written, and the framework's in place. I'm not sure about that: Among other things, there's a lot more political infrastructure devoted to a health care push—it was all Ted Kennedy talked about last night, and you have organizations like SEIU spending $75 million on health care, with no comparable ground-up push around global warming. High energy prices could also make it easier for the Chamber of Commerce and friends to whip up fears that curbing greenhouse gases will send us back to the age of candlelight and horsedrawn carriages. (See this ad for a sample.)

--Bradford Plumer

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