As a stalemated Congress shies away from taking serious action on climate change, environmentalists are focusing on potential cabinet openings at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that could further their efforts.
If the top jobs at the agencies open up as expected at the beginning of Obama's second term, the new leaders would step into the spotlight at a critical time. Recent scientific reports warn that polar ice sheets are melting at a rate three times faster than in the 1990s and methane emissions from melting permafrost could dramatically accelerate global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's next report, due in 2013, will likely add to evidence that carbon emissions are causing Earth's climate to warm.
The EPA docket is already crowded with key environmental issues. The agency is expected to consider new regulations for coal-fired plants, smog and the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. It also could weigh in on the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Energy Department, meanwhile, is trying to decide how to foster the nascent clean energy industry amid the political minefield left by the scandal over Solyndra, a failed solar company that received federal funding. A new energy secretary would have to be adept at fielding political questions and making the most of a much smaller pool of loans for renewable energy.
Neither EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson nor Energy Secretary Steven Chu have announced plans to leave, but Jackson is rumored to be on her way out, likely to return to her home state of New Jersey. Chu, having been put through the wringer during the Solyndra failure, is expected to go back to research and academic work in California.
Environmental groups are already preparing wish lists of potential successors, although it's still too early to know what the White House is thinking.
For the EPA, most expect an internal hire like deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe or Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. The Department of Energy seems more likely to recruit an outsider, with former Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm or Duke Energy CEO and President Jim Rogers, who will retire at the end of next year, among the groups' top choices.
InsideClimate News talked to a half dozen organizations about what they see on the horizon for the two agencies and how the leading candidates might steer the White House towards more serious climate work.
"Climate change is an issue that the president has said is important and that he should see as part of his legacy," said Nat Keohane, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "If there's any meaning to that, he's now got four more years to cement that legacy. ...This is the next big thing on his plate and this is part of his legacy."
What's at Stake for the EPA
In Obama's first term, the EPA was the largest—and at times only—driver of serious environmental work, although some green groups complain it could have moved faster and stronger. With a stack of unfinished and scheduled rules, environmentalists say the agency's agenda is likely set, although there's still room for it to get more aggressive.
"Despite some of the negative rhetoric directed at them, EPA has for the most part been doing what they're required to do by law," said Manik Roy, vice president of strategic outreach for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "I'm not sure it's going to be all that different than it was during the first term. They'll do what was required under law and when they don't, people will sue to make it happen."
The agency's biggest achievement in Obama's first term was the passage of fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles through model year 2025, which are expected to slash 6 billion metric tons, greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.
But two other significant rules saw delays, including long-awaited regulations that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. The draft rule was released in March 2012.
In 2011, the administration delayed implementation of a rule limiting ground-level smog until 2013, a move that irked environmentalists—and reportedly Jackson herself—who say the rule is necessary for protecting public health. Most expect the review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone to be revived early in the second term, despite concerns about its high cost.
Greenhouse gas regulations for existing large power plants are also likely to be released, even though they will face even more opposition from industry.
Other EPA regulations that are set to be finalized include rules that would limit emissions from industrial boilers, reduce particulate matter and regulate cement makers. A report on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water, due in 2013, could lead to new regulations for the controversial process amid a national boom in natural gas production.