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Obama Plans to Leave it All on the Field With Climate Change

The president will push his domestic agenda in 2016.

Pres­id­ent Obama de­clared that 2015 would be a “year of ac­tion” on cli­mate change. With the re­lease of land­mark emis­sions reg­u­la­tions, agree­ments with coun­tries like China and Brazil, and the clinch­ing of an in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate-change deal in Par­is, it seemed to live up to the hype.

The Par­is agree­ment—which sets nearly 200 coun­tries on the path to com­bat cli­mate change—could be a walk-off-the-field mo­ment, the cul­min­a­tion of years of cli­mate work.

But Obama’s still got a full year left and has prom­ised to “leave it all on the field.” Even as the clock runs down and the reg­u­lat­ory cal­en­dar emp­ties, he has more cli­mate work in mind.

“We have a 390-day plan,” said White House cli­mate ad­viser Bri­an Deese at a pan­el earli­er this month. “We’ve got to con­tin­ue im­ple­ment­ing ag­gress­ively our do­mest­ic agenda.”

Top on Deese’s list was get­ting states on board with the Clean Power Plan, the massive rule fi­nal­ized in Au­gust to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from the power sec­tor. States have to start sub­mit­ting their com­pli­ance plans this sum­mer, al­though built-in ex­ten­sions would al­low states to push back their sub­mis­sions an­oth­er two years.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is bol­ster­ing its Clean Power Plant pre­pared­ness by re­leas­ing a mod­el for states in­ter­ested in us­ing a car­bon-trad­ing mech­an­ism for com­pli­ance. The EPA will also pre­pare a mod­el fed­er­al plan for any states that choose not to com­ply.

At the same time, the White House will be work­ing to fend off an ava­lanche of leg­al at­tacks on the cli­mate rules from states and in­dustry groups, al­though that pro­cess is sure to stretch on for years.

And while get­ting the Clean Power Plan off the ground—and pro­tect­ing it from leg­al chal­lenges by states and in­dustry groups—is likely to be the fo­cus of most en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, they say there’s room for Obama to go bey­ond his suc­cesses in 2015.

“It’s hard to find any oth­er area of policy with this ad­min­is­tra­tion in the second term that’s come with more co­ordin­a­tion across the Cab­in­et, more events, and more drive than cli­mate change,” said Dav­id Do­ni­ger, dir­ect­or of the cli­mate and clean-air pro­gram for the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil. “I would ex­pect to see more of that in 2016. I don’t think he’ll fol­low a year of ac­tion with a year of rest.”

Ac­cord­ing to the reg­u­lat­ory agenda re­leased in Novem­ber, the De­part­ment of En­ergy will keep mov­ing for­ward on sev­er­al en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency rules meant to make ap­pli­ances green­er, in­clud­ing rules on heat pumps, elec­tric mo­tors, port­able air con­di­tion­ers, dish­wash­ers, and ceil­ing fans. That’s part of a DOE pledge to cut 3 bil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon pol­lu­tion by 2030 through en­ergy-con­ser­va­tion stand­ards.

The EPA will set fi­nal emis­sions stand­ards for heavy trucks, build­ing on a June pro­pos­al to lim­it pol­lu­tion from trucks, buses, and trail­ers. Also un­der con­sid­er­a­tion is start­ing a re­view of the fuel-eco­nomy stand­ards on light-duty cars, an op­por­tun­ity for auto­makers and reg­u­lat­ors to see what pro­gress has been made on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quire­ment that cars reach 54.5 miles per gal­lon by 2025. The re­view, however, could be a trouble spot, as low gas prices have blun­ted sales of clean cars and could give auto­makers lever­age to try to re­duce stand­ards.

Greens are es­pe­cially hope­ful that Obama will use his fi­nal year to get the ball rolling on a crack­down of meth­ane emis­sions from ex­ist­ing oil and gas wells, com­ple­ment­ing a rule on new and mod­i­fied wells that’s set to be wrapped up in 2016. Meth­ane is a po­tent green­house gas that traps 20 times as much heat as car­bon di­ox­ide, a nasty byproduct of the nat­ur­al-gas boom that’s buoyed the na­tion’s en­ergy sec­tor.

“Fi­nal­iz­ing ex­ist­ing-source meth­ane reg­u­la­tions would ce­ment the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate leg­acy by lock­ing in man­dat­ory re­duc­tions meet­ing the U.S. tar­gets, demon­strat­ing to the world that the U.S. in­tends to meet its com­mit­ments,” said Con­rad Schneider, ad­vocacy dir­ect­or of the Clean Air Task Force.

The White House has said it would like to cut meth­ane emis­sions by up to 45 per­cent of 2012 levels by 2025, but the most mean­ing­ful rules have been the pro­pos­al to slash meth­ane and volat­ile or­gan­ic com­pounds emis­sions from new gas wells. With the nat­ur­al-gas boom not go­ing away any­time soon, ex­pect a re­newed fo­cus from en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to undo its harm­ful side ef­fects.

In a USA Today ed­it­or­i­al, the Safe Cli­mate Cam­paign also called on Obama to use his fi­nal term to start reg­u­lat­ing emis­sions from pre­vi­ously un­touched in­dus­tries like ce­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing. And greens are look­ing for the EPA to con­tin­ue the rule­mak­ing pro­cess to cut green­house gases from air­planes.

Deese said the White House plans to use the af­ter­glow of the Par­is deal “to build and deep­en our bi­lat­er­al and mul­ti­lat­er­al cli­mate co­oper­a­tion,” po­ten­tially strik­ing more in­di­vidu­al cli­mate deals with ma­jor emit­ters. Already, Obama has been work­ing the phones to talk to lead­ers in China, In­dia, and Brazil.

While any White House typ­ic­ally ticks off a buck­et list in its fi­nal term, ad­voc­ates say there’s an ad­ded ur­gency to deal­ing with the cli­mate agenda be­fore Obama leaves of­fice. Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton has vowed to go even bey­ond the cur­rent White House on cli­mate change and has said she op­poses Arc­tic and some off­shore drilling, but she hasn’t fully ar­tic­u­lated a cli­mate plan.

The Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have all said they’d im­me­di­ately over­turn the cli­mate rules. But the gears of the reg­u­lat­ory pro­cess—and the mo­mentum of the clean-en­ergy in­dustry—are hard to stop, so any move­ment in 2016 could con­tin­ue to pay di­vidends down the road.

“It makes sense for this pres­id­ent to plan for con­tinu­ity and think about not just what’s go­ing to get fin­ished in 2016, but what I can get star­ted,” said Do­ni­ger. “What are the next steps on cli­mate change?”

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