Monday, February 28, 2011

Another Setback for US Climate Policy?

Today's edition of The Guardian (here) reports that President Obama has signaled his intention to order a two-year delay in the implementation of EPA's proposed rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Notwithstanding that the Clean Air Act is not well suited to dealing with climate change, the President's retreat is yet another sign that his Administration does not consider climate change a significant enough priority to fight for against the tide of Republican (and some Democratic) opposition.

This continues the one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to climate policy that has characterized the Obama Administration so far. After identifying climate change as a key issue for his first term, President Obama declined to expend the political capital necessary to obtain Senate action on a climate bill that already had been approved (thanks largely to the efforts of Speaker Pelosi) in the House. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act was supposed to be a back-up plan that would move US climate policy forward while spurring reluctant legislators to support special climate legislation to minimize compliance costs for regulated industries, e.g., through specially designed emissions trading and offset programs. Now, having already conceded the fight on special climate legislation, and faced with radical Republican threats to bring the federal government to a halt, President Obama appears ready to, in effect, put all federal climate policy on the back-burner until after the next presidential election.

Is this capitulation or good tactical politics? The one argument I can see for the later conclusion is that by delaying EPA regulations for two years, the President might forestall Republican efforts to emasculate the agency. That assumes, of course, that such Republican efforts have a serious prospect of working. Moreover, Obama's plan (if that's what it is) could backfire, if it simply emboldens radical conservatives, who already have inserted into funding bills measures to reduce EPA's authority to regulate hazardous air pollutants such as mercury (see here). How credible will President Obama's threats to veto such legislation be if he is known to capitulate at every turn?

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