Within weeks, President Barack Obama's administration is set to unveil unprecedented emissions limits on power plants across the United States, much to the dismay of many Democratic candidates who are running for election in energy-producing states. Fearful of a political backlash, they wish their fellow Democrat in the White House would hold off until after the voting.
But Obama can't wait that long.
Unlike the Keystone XL oil pipeline, whose review the administration has delayed, probably until after November's elections, the clock is ticking for the power plant rules — the cornerstone of Obama's campaign to curb climate change. Unless he starts now, the rules won't be in place before he leaves office. If they're not set when he leaves, it will be easier for his successor to stop them.
So even though the action could bolster Republican attacks against some of this year's most vulnerable Democrats, the administration is proceeding at full speed. Obama's counselor on climate issues, John Podesta, affirmed that the proposal will be unveiled in early June, just as this year's general election is heating up.
"Having this debate now will only injure Democrats," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist. "Democrats are in trouble."
To be sure, Americans generally support cutting pollution. A Pew Research Center poll late last year found 65 percent of Americans favor "setting stricter emission limits on power plants in order to address climate change," while 30 percent were opposed.
But Democrats are fighting most of their toughest races this year in conservative-leaning states that rely heavily on the energy industry, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska and Montana. Already, conservative groups have spent millions accusing Democrats in those states of supporting energy policies that would impede local jobs and economic development.
Never mind that it's the Obama administration — not House or Senate candidates — drafting the rules. Even when Democrats try to distance themselves from Obama on the issue, Republicans say that's evidence that congressional Democrats are unable to rein in their party's out-of-control president.
Last year, the administration proposed the first-ever carbon dioxide limits on newly built power plants. Climate activists say the next step — rules cracking down on existing plants — is even more critical to curbing the pollutants blamed for global warming.
In contrast to the rules for new plants, the Clean Air Act doesn't let the government regulate emissions from existing plants directly. Instead, the government will issue guidelines for reducing emissions. Then each state will develop its own plan to meet those guidelines.
Rolling out such regulations is complicated, and the Environmental Protection Agency is notorious for missing deadlines. There's little wiggle room for delay in the process, as laid out in an executive order Obama signed last year:
In early June the EPA is supposed to propose the overall rule, known as a draft.
Then there's a full year in which the public can comment. The EPA reviews those comments and makes any revisions before finalizing in June 2015.
States then have another full year to submit their implementation plans, by June 2016.
The EPA must then review each plan individually before deciding whether to accept it or force a state back to the drawing board. Expect litigation, especially in Republican-led states that oppose the rules to begin with.
Proposals fall short
Wednesday's announcement comes in the wake of a federal report released Tuesday that included findings expected to be a launching pad for Obama’s climate change policy in the last two years of his presidency.
The report, the National Climate Change Assessment, warns that climate change has the potential to catastrophically affect every aspect of American life, prompting immediate calls for a national response akin to a “wartime effort.”
It outlines dozens of recommendations for reversing the effects of climate change and adapting to the ones already happening.
But many are concerned that, despite Obama’s proposals, not enough will be done to significantly protect Americans from the consequences of climate change.
They point to the Clean Air Act, which experts say fails to take into account science-based emissions-reduction targets.
“The president’s stated goal of reducing emissions from 2005 levels by 17 percent by 2020 is not nearly enough to preserve a livable climate system,” said Julia Olson, an attorney behind a pending federal lawsuit seeking a court-ordered climate recovery plan.
Mary Wood, faculty director at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Oregon, partly blames the fossil fuel industry for politicizing climate change and thwarting government efforts to combat the problem.
“The fossil fuel industry has a vice grip on two branches of government through campaign financing. Two branches won’t act because it’s politically not in their interests,” she said.
For every $1 the fossil fuel industry spends on campaign contributions and lobbying, it gets back $59 in subsidies, according to Oil Change International, an environmental advocacy group.
Scientists believe the window for action on climate change is rapidly closing.
Experts have warned for years that without drastic action, the world’s ecosystems will dramatically change, with drought, food shortages, extreme weather and increased public health problems becoming the new normal.
The recommendations contained in the federal report are a good first step, Wood said, but she added that "it's dangerous at this point to think that incremental action will work."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Amel Ahmed and Peter Moskowtiz contributed to this report.