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Obama Thin on Climate Promises, Tempering Hopes and Some Expectations

News analysis: In his SOTU, the president was navigating through familiar political crosswinds—including GOP opposition and adamant demands from activists.

Feb 13, 2013
President Barack Obama

2/13/13: This story has been updated to include a statement by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

WASHINGTON—In President Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, the theme of confronting climate change played more a supporting than a starring role.

Obama urged Congress "to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and to act before it's too late."

And he said that if a recalcitrant and divided Congress "won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

But the president made no explicit promise to environmental advocates who had been hoping, since his soaring words on climate at his inauguration, that he would pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions that spew from existing power plants, or perhaps block the Keystone XL pipeline they so abhor.

Instead, the speech was another inflection point along the curve of his presidency: an assertion of his willingness to bypass Congress on big issues, but also a reminder that he must juggle competing priorities, including jobs, guns, immigration, health care, spending, taxes and global affairs.

In trimming his rhetorical sails, the president was navigating through treacherous political crosswinds—including fierce opposition to his agenda from Congressional Republicans, and equally adamant demands from a green movement marching on Washington this weekend to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

In discussing energy, he emphasized security of supply and the creation of jobs as much as the pure green goals of cutting emissions. And he promised to continue cutting red tape and speeding up new gas and oil permits as "part of an all of the above plan."

On balance, many who follow climate issues closely said they were satisfied.

Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, which studies how the White House can act without new legislation, was pleased to hear Obama pledge to do so.

"I have the sense that he understands that he might be, and quite likely is, the last president who can keep us from going off the climate cliff," Becker said.

But organizers of Sunday's Keystone pipeline protest were less enthusiastic.

On Twitter, Bill McKibben, whose 350.org group is helping to organize the march, wrote: "I'm interested in what the president says. I'm more interested in what the climate movement can push/free him to do."

For days, the capital had buzzed with rumors that the president might explicitly declare that he would control the carbon dioxide emissions of existing electric plants that burn fossil fuels, using a provision of the Clean Air Act that had lain untouched for so long that one Washington wag calls it "the 40-year-old virgin." At stake is some 40 percent of all the nation's emissions, especially from the burning of coal.

Although he didn't mention power plant emissions, many expect that such a regulation is on the way. Its advocates were quick to connect the dots.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a statement saying that the Clean Air Act already allows Obama to crack down on emissions "from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future. That will take presidential leadership. Americans are counting on it—and that’s what the president delivered tonight."

The most specific proposals the president offered were of the kind that are easy to announce, and just as easy to forget. He proposed using some oil and gas revenues "to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good." He also called for federal assistance to states with the best ideas for reducing energy waste in homes and businesses.

Obama can already claim to have made progress in curbing emissions through a combination of policy, market upheaval and serendipity: regulations, incentives, recession, and the natural gas drilling revolution.

"Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America," he said. "So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let's drive costs down even further."

According to the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, renewable energy installations hit an all time high last year, natural gas equaled coal as a fuel for generating electricity, energy efficiency continued to improve, and emissions from the energy sector were headed toward their lowest level since 1994.

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