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On Climate, Obama's Hands Are Far From Tied

2/6/2014 1:00:00 PM

Tags: Barack Obama, Congress, Climate Change, Executive Order, Keystone XL, Bill McKibben, Fracking, Renewable Energy, Tesla, Sam Ross-Brown

Congress or no Congress, Obama has plenty of room to address climate change.

At the heart of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the message that if Congress won’t pass meaningful legislation, he’s prepared to go it alone. On everything from minimum wage to job training to fuel efficiency standards, Obama laid out a plan to use executive orders to achieve his second-term goals.

Naturally, this didn’t make GOP leaders happy; some even threatened to “go to the courts” (whatever that means). But executive orders are nothing new for presidents. In fact, according to a new report by the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, there are over 200 actions Obama could legally take to address climate change without Congress, writes Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.

First on the list for environmental activists is derailing the Keystone XL Pipeline, a move scientists say is essential to avert catastrophic climate change. Since the State Department released its environmental report on Keystone last week (to much frustration from environmentalists), all eyes have been on the president to make a final decision on the project. “Now we’re going to find out whether John Kerry and Barack Obama are ... captives of the oil industry,” says founder Bill McKibben, “or whether they’re willing to really stand up when it counts for the commitments they’ve made about climate change.”

And why stop there? After killing Keystone, Obama could also dive into the wild west of fracking regulations, says McDonnell. Now, drilling laws are mostly state-level, but feds have the authority to introduce guidelines for fracking on public land. These rules could address everything state lawmakers don’t wanna touch, from methane leaks to finding out just what’s in those mysterious fracking fluids. Obama could also get more specific about how long this “bridge fuel” is supposed to last, writes McDonnell.

That’s not all. The federal government happens to be the nation’s biggest consumer, and Obama has enormous power over what it buys and why. In fact, the president already requires federal agencies to favor energy-efficient products; why not go further? Obama could require agencies to take a product’s carbon footprint into account, or how it’s manufactured. Obama could also double-down on his promise that federal agencies will use 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Measures like this would help create a larger market for sustainable products, McDonnell adds, bringing everyone’s costs down. 

Speaking of renewable markets, the government’s loan guarantee program for clean tech companies happens to be doing great right now. Last year Tesla paid back $450 million in loans a full nine years ahead of schedule. Today the program’s portfolio includes $32 billion in loans, supporting some 55,000 jobs—much of them in solar. Expanding this program could bring low-cost renewable technology to millions more Americans and bring costs down across the board.

Believe it or not, Obama can push every one of these plans without Congress lifting a finger. If the president is serious about fighting climate change, he should start here.

Image by Glyn Lowe, licensed under Creative Commons.

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