WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, declaring that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction” on climate change, on Tuesday announced sweeping measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare the nation for a future of damaging weather aggravated by rising temperatures.
Embracing an issue that could define his legacy but also ignite new battles with Republicans, Obama said he would use his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the nation's power plants.
That was the centerpiece of a three-part plan that includes new federal spending to advance renewable energy technology, as well as spending to protect cities and states from the ravages of storms and droughts that are exacerbated by a changing climate.
Obama touted America's strengths — research, technology and innovation — as factors that make the nation uniquely poised to take on the challenges of global warming.
Saying science had put to rest the debate over whether human activity was warming the Earth, Obama said, “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late.”
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say, we need to act,” he said to students and others gathered in a sunbaked quadrangle at Georgetown University. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that is beyond saving.”
Unlike the health care overhaul, the president is being forced to rely on executive authorities, since passing legislation to address climate policy would be a near impossibility in a deeply divided Congress.
Even if political and legal challenges are overcome, the proposals will take years to implement. By using executive action instead of seeking legislative fixes, Obama will be hard-pressed to provide the federal funding that community leaders and environmental activists say are needed to prepare states and towns for climate change.
Republicans were quick to condemn the president's proposals, saying they constituted a government overreach that would constrict energy production and strangle the nation's economic recovery.
“These policies, rejected even by the last Democratic-controlled Congress, will shutter power plants, destroy good-paying American jobs and raise electricity bills for families that can scarcely afford it,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement released before Obama spoke.
Obama's far-reaching plan marks his most prominent effort yet to deliver on a major priority he laid out in his first presidential campaign and recommitted to at the start of his second term: to fight climate change in the U.S. and abroad and prepare American communities for its effects.
During his first term, climate change took a back seat to more pressing problems, including the financial crisis and the collapse of the auto industry, and then to his decision to make the health care overhaul his first big legislative initiative.
Obama proposed the first limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants and promised to complete pending rules for new plants.
He will direct the Environmental Protection Agency to work with states and industries to devise standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from existing power plants by June 2014, White House aides said, and will finalize the rules in June 2015.
The president will also direct the agency to complete standards for new fossil fuel power plants by the end of September. The rules, first proposed in April 2012, were supposed to be completed by April but are being rewritten to address potential legal and technical problems.
Tuesday's announcement came just weeks after Obama's nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, assured senators during her confirmation process that the EPA was “not currently” developing any regulations on existing sources of greenhouse gases. McCarthy said if EPA were to look at such regulations, it would allow states, the public and others to “offer meaningful input on potential approaches.”
Republicans called Obama's plan a “war on coal” and a “war on jobs.”
“It's tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today's economy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor of the Senate.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., noted that Obama was unable to push climate change legislation through Congress even when the Democrats held large majorities in the House and Senate.
“There might be a reason Congress isn't doing it,” she said. “And the reason being they have deep questions about what proposals he's putting forth.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., described Obama's proposals as “a war on family budgets and American jobs.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, praised Obama for making climate change a priority.
Environmental groups offered a mix of praise and wariness that Obama would follow through on the ambitious goals he laid out. Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity described the plan as too little, too late.
“What he's proposing isn't big enough, doesn't move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis,” Snape said.
Others hailed the plan, galvanized by the fact that Obama was taking action on his own after the reluctance in Congress to tackle the issue.
“The president nailed it: This can't wait,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We will cut this carbon pollution today so our children don't inherit climate chaos tomorrow.”
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.
Consumers likely to pay more
NEW YORK (AP) — America is slowly moving toward cleaner sources of energy and using less of it overall. President Barack Obama's plan to fight climate change will accelerate those trends.
The most ambitious part of the plan seeks to rein in one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions: coal-fired power plants. Obama will direct the EPA to create federal limits on those emissions.
Obama also seeks to increase funding for clean energy research by 30 percent, to $7.9 billion, and make $8 billion in federal loan guarantees available to projects that could help capture and bury the carbon dioxide produced at power plants. Here's how the plan will most likely affect companies and consumers:
UTILITIES AND COAL PRODUCERS
Power plants account for 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions, and most of those emissions come from burning coal. To reduce such emissions, power companies will have to run coal plants less often, install equipment that captures carbon dioxide or shut down plants that become too expensive to operate.
The cost to make these changes are probably so great that utilities would instead generate more power with natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar power, which will become comparatively less expensive and more profitable.
Very few, if any, new coal-fired plants will be built. A shift toward natural gas power plants is already underway; Obama's plan will magnify that trend, analysts say.
RENEWABLE ENERGY COMPANIES
By directing the Interior Department to accelerate permits to clean energy developers that want to use public land, Obama will make it less expensive for companies to build wind, solar and geothermal energy projects.
Companies that install windows, insulation, and heating and cooling systems stand to benefit from Obama's plan, which will give homeowners and businesses incentives to invest in energy-efficiency improvements. While the upfront costs can be high, the long-term savings can be significant.
Obama also wants the EPA to develop new fuel-efficiency standards for heavy trucks, which are the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector after cars. Obama has already implemented new fuel economy standards for cars through 2025.
Homeowners and businesses will probably pay more for electricity because the nation will be relying less on coal, which has historically been the cheapest way to produce electricity.
But more efficient homes and appliances are helping reduce energy consumption, which will offset some of the higher costs.
Analyst Hugh Wynne estimates that a 20 percent nationwide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would increase retail power prices by 1 cent per kilowatt hour; that would add about $9 to an average American's monthly bill.