A Three-Month Review of the President's Climate Action Plan: Strides Made in Implementing Rules, Threats Emerge in Congress

In June, President Obama revealed his climate action plan, delivering on a promise he made during his State of the Union Address in February that he would take action to address climate change if Congress failed to do so. The plan outlines near- and long-term policies that the Obama administration will implement to address climate change: cutting carbon pollution, preparing the U.S. for climate change impacts, and leading international efforts to take action.

Three months after issuing the plan, the Obama administration has made steady progress toward achieving some of these key goals, demonstrating that the president is serious about confronting the climate change challenge head on.

Reducing Carbon Pollution

In an earlier article, the Center for Effective Government explained that a key initiative included in the president's climate action plan is to establish limits on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new and existing U.S. coal-fired power plants, a major source of CO2 emissions, as well as other harmful air pollutants.

On Sept. 20, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) met the deadline President Obama set for proposing the CO2 emissions limits for new coal-fired power plants. The president has directed EPA to finalize the proposed rule "in a timely fashion," but no formal deadline has been set. The president also directed EPA to issue a rule limiting CO2 emissions from existing power plants by June 2014 and to finalize those rules by June 2015.

Just days before EPA released the new power plant emission limits, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced legislation in the Senate that would block EPA from finalizing the rule. McConnell has also announced that he intends to file a disapproval resolution under the Congressional Review Act (a process that has only resulted in one rule being overturned in its history). And Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) has threatened to introduce legislation that would impose guidelines on how EPA sets limits on new power plants, although he has yet to do so. In the weeks ahead, congressional climate change skeptics and opponents of regulations are likely to attach "riders" to the debt ceiling extension that would block or limit EPA's authority to regulate power plant emissions.

The administration has also taken measures to reduce carbon pollution by promoting renewable energy investments and developments. The president's climate plan establishes a goal of reducing carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 and directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to issue energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. Three draft energy efficiency rules that had languished at the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for over a year were released by the DOE this past August. Two of the rules set new efficiency standards for commercial refrigeration equipment, and the third rule sets standards for metal halide lamp fixtures. These rules combined are estimated to save up to $31 billion in energy costs and reduce CO2 emissions by up to 393 million metric tons over the next 30 years.

Additionally, the president's plan seeks to double renewable energy generation to power more than five million homes by 2020. As a first step, the Department of the Interior (DOI) has accelerated permitting for a 500-megawatt wind project in Arizona and a 40-megawatt geothermal energy project in California. These two projects alone will generate enough electricity to power approximately 211,000 homes. Additionally, DOI recently held its first-ever offshore wind lease sales, opening up millions of acres off the coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Virginia for renewable energy development. Other carbon-cutting measures in the president's action plan are also underway.

Preparing for Climate Change Impacts

In addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the president's climate action plan highlights the importance of preparing for the impacts of climate change by building stronger and safer communities and infrastructure, protecting our environment and economy, and using sound science to manage climate impacts.

On Sept. 26, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its five-year assessment on the impacts of climate change, which highlights just how serious preparing for climate change will be for the U.S. The report indicates that "[t]he atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased." The report goes on to say: "Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped."

Since the president unveiled his plan, the Interior Department has established a grant program for environmental research projects in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy. Research to manage risks of wildfires and drought and identify and prepare for risks to the electric power grid is also underway. The administration has also initiated several partnerships between federal agencies and state and local leaders to identify and mitigate risks to their communities. Nonetheless, much more work remains to be done to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

International Efforts a Mixed Bag

On the international front, the president has taken some steps to promote climate friendly policies, yet he continues to also promote energy policies that present considerable risks to public health and the environment.

On the one hand, working with world leaders has resulted in the recent agreement with China to phase-down use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas. However, the president is also promoting the development of a global market in natural gas and approving applications to export liquefied natural gas overseas without conducting adequate environmental reviews. Public interest organizations, including the Center for Effective Government, have warned that exporting liquefied natural gas overseas will lead to more hydraulic fracturing operations in the United States to satisfy increased foreign demand. Furthermore, a recent Center for Effective Government blog post explains that promoting natural gas use as a component of the president's climate action plan will risk increasing the release of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) during hydraulic fracturing operations unless adequate controls are required.

Meanwhile, some groups are concerned that the administration's trade policies and efforts to negotiate two new free trade agreements conflict with the international action he has laid out for his climate plan. For example, The Huffington Post recently reported that environmental groups are concerned that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is working to undermine the European Union's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee in July, Froman reportedly said, speaking about the EU's Fuel Quality Directive, that the U.S. is seeking "improvements in the EU's overall regulatory practices" through the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement negotiations.


The president's climate action plan presents a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change, and the administration's progress over the past three months has been encouraging. Moving forward, the administration must continue to implement smart, sustainable policies that address greenhouse gas emissions domestically, prepare the U.S. for climate change impacts, and avoid trade policies that would undermine progress in addressing climate change.

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