WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce a long-awaited federal strategy that not only is expected to rein in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions but also will address the sweeping effects of climate change already occurring.
The strategy will put in place a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, Obama said this weekend in a video address previewing his speech. The centerpiece is expected to establish new rules that limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, the source in the U.S. of 40 percent of the gases that lead to global warming. Most of those plants are coal powered.
“There’s no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change,” Obama said Saturday. “But when it comes to the world we leave our children, we owe it to them to do what we can.”
Obama’s move, long awaited by environmentalists, makes good on a pledge in his second inaugural address to respond to climate change. At the time, he cast it as a moral obligation and warned that failing to take action “would betray our children and future generations.” It’s not just a responsibility to his fellow Americans, Obama said, but to “all posterity.” Last week in Germany, he called it “the global threat of our time.”
Environmental groups have been pressuring Obama to act on the promises laid out in that speech, which included a pledge to take executive action if Congress did not act. The Natural Resources Defense Council launched ads featuring actor Robert Redford calling on the president to act on the “courage of his convictions.”
Until now, there has not been a cohesive strategy to reduce emissions to meet U.S. targets, said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. It’s important for private investors and ordinary people to have a clear sense of where the government is heading, he said.
“President Obama is really resetting the climate agenda tomorrow. And it’s a wonderful thing to see that he is reclaiming this issue,” Steer said.
The administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, already has drafted rules that curtail emissions at new power plants. What it hasn’t done yet is issue rules that apply to existing power plants.
Those rules are likely to be the most controversial piece of the proposal in the president’s speech, since many of the dirtiest, carbon-intensive power plants are fueled by coal. Regional energy interests, among others, are likely to object.
Courts have determined that carbon emissions are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA has the authority to pursue regulation of them. A number of major environmental groups have given the White House plans that outline what sort of legal authority they think the agency has to act.
The U.S. has more than 1,142 coal-fired plants and 3,967 gas-fired plants across the country, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group that represents many of the nation’s power producers. About 37 percent of all of U.S. electricity is generated from coal. About 30 percent came from natural gas in 2012. Natural gas, because it is cheaper, has been rapidly overtaking coal as a preferred fuel.
The Clean Air Act “authorizes EPA to do a lot with respect to greenhouse gases” and also demands a great deal of the agency, said Jason Schwartz, the legal director at New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, the law school’s advocacy arm. Schwartz’s group is going to be looking for so-called market mechanisms that allow power plants to trade or borrow emission credits, for example.
“What we’re going to be listening for is to hear which of these many actions the president and EPA are going to be prioritizing, and what sort of their general approach to regulation is going to be,” he said.
Many industry groups, including those that represent coal and mining, declined to comment until they had heard more details of the president’s speech.
Utilities had no formal role in developing the policies expected to be announced Tuesday, said Quin Shea of the Edison Electric Institute. But many of the pieces are familiar, he said, and as the details emerge utilities will have a better sense of what it means for the industry.
“Our understanding of the contours of the policy is that there are a number of pieces,” he said. “None of which is particularly new, whether you’re talking about energy efficiency, increased use of renewables, development and greater expansion and marketability of new technologies, and new source performance standards. All of those pieces have been in play for several years.”
The proposal met with immediate political opposition, however. The office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the president was about to “roll out a new ream of red tape that will make American energy more expensive and destroy jobs.” And the National Republican Senatorial Campaign sent out an alert that targets Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014.
“Rather than focusing on means to strengthen the economy, President Obama is embracing the most extreme environmentalists on the left and forcing his own agenda of radical climate change policies, blatantly ignoring the priorities of Americans,” said the group, which is charged with electing Republican senators.
The president’s proposal also is expected to include what’s known as mitigation — addressing the impacts of climate change that many American communities are already experiencing, whether it’s rising sea levels on the East Coast or melting sea ice in the Arctic. Obama also will pledge to lead global efforts in fighting climate change.