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What’s in store for climate change policy in Obama’s second term?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Climate change advocates and policy experts are predicting that environmental policy will be highlighted in Washington politics once again after both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement and President Barack Obama’s victory speech after his reelection.

“Now that Obama will never have to face voters again, he may attempt to make global warming a key part of his legacy,” Marc Morano, publisher of Climate Depot and former staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

“There’s the big question of: Does the president use the bully pulpit, the power of the executive agency… to do a much more aggressive job of educating the American public about the reality, the urgency, the impacts, and the costs of inaction on climate change and start to shape the politics on this issue over the next four years,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The DC News Foundation.

In the president’s second term, expect more action from the EPA and executive branch than Congress — though some think a carbon tax could be enacted under the right circumstances.

EPA regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency will move to implement more greenhouse gas regulations on power plants and has already moved forward with rules to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“For the big ticket items of substantial emission reductions over the next four years, it’s really using existing authority of EPA and other agencies to move forward on an executive basis, particularly on coal power plants, but also more on the transportation side,” said Meyer.

The New Source Performance Standards, an example of such environmental rules, limit emissions from new or modified power plants and refineries and have effectively banned the construction of new coal plants, according to critics.

No new coal plants have been slated for construction due to low natural gas prices and EPA regulations.

“Watch for the heavy hand of the EPA, which is poised to implement the climate regulations that Congress refused to pass,” Morano said. “Obama’s vision of an EPA bureaucracy shutting down carbon based energy in the name of controlling the climate, will be massively opposed and exposed.”

Meyer believes that this could be applied to existing power plants in an effort to reduce emissions even further.

“This is the number one thing the administration can do if they want to continue to ramp down carbon emissions,” he said. “That’s where the carbon is, it’s in the power plant sector, the transportation sector, the building sector.”

The coal industry has already been hit hard by EPA regulations as well as economic factors as more than 200 coal-fired electric generating units will be shut down across 25 states in the next three to five years due to EPA regulations and cheap natural gas, reports the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

The EPA could also revive the recently struck down Cross-State Pollution Rule (CASPR) which requires many states to sharply reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants and is estimated to cost $853 million.

“I think under Obama [CASPR] would come back, probably reinstated in 2014,” Kevin Massy, associate director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Obama EPA may also look to regulate hydraulic fracking, which has been mainly regulated by the states due to the oil and gas boom occurring on private and state lands..

“The idea is to take it over from the states,” Ebell said.

“The Obama administration EPA is looking closely at the issue of fracking and has an ongoing study on water standards,” Massy added. “We’ll probably see tighter standards for water and air quality.”

Fuel Efficiency

President Obama recently doubled the fuel efficiency standards of new cars and trucks, mandating an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025

“The science is crystal clear: we cannot burn all of the (conventional + unconventional) fossil fuels without creating climate chaos for young people,” James Hansen head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

That standard could be extended to medium and heavy duty trucks, according to Meyer, but critics say that this will only serve to hurt the economy and the auto industry.

“It’s a disaster for the auto industry waiting to happen,” said Myron Ebell, director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “People will not be willing to give up their big car for a tiny little car.”

Thirteen major automakers have endorsed the new standards, however, CAFE standards push automakers to build smaller and more dangerous vehicles, sacrificing safety for gas mileage. CAFe standards also lead to high car costs as advanced technology vehicles are more expensive to manufacture.

“It makes no sense whatsoever to feed our fossil fuel addiction with the dirtiest fuel of them all,” Hanson said. “We need to solve that addiction with a simple rising fee on carbon collected from the fossil fuel companies and distributed to the public in equal shares, stimulating our economy and allowing us to move to clean energies.”

Carbon Tax

There has been speculation that a carbon tax could be suggested by Democrats as part of a deficit reduction deal– which would join the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and sequesterration as two Democratic measures.

“That’s probably the biggest threat,” Ebell told The DC News Foundation.

“[T]he idea of a carbon tax to raise revenue is gaining luster in Washington from both Republicans and Democrats,” Morano said. “Many of Romney’s advisors supported carbon tax and it is just possible that GOP leadership may consider under a tax ‘reform’ revenue enhancement.”

In August, Washington Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott introduced a carbon tax bill in the House that placed an initial maximum carbon permit price at $18.75 per ton of carbon which would then steeply rise to $131.25 per ton of carbon over a decade.

It’s unlikely that the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House, but some say that Republicans could possibly be convinced to go along with a tax if lower corporate taxes and personal income taxes

“A carbon tax… might be more palatable than higher corporate taxes, higher income taxes, higher payroll taxes,” Meyer said.

Republicans may also be open to a carbon tax in exchange for stopping the scheduled defense cuts from going through at the end of this year and promising to fully fund defense spending at its current levels, according to Ebell.

“The only way it could go through is if there was some kind of grand bargain between the Democrats and the Republicans and they agree there has to be some revenue element in the package,” said Meyer.

However, aside from the McDermott bill, there has been no real debate on the Hill over the merits of a carbon tax.

“There’s no easy way to raise large amounts of revenue, so it becomes what’s the least bad way,” he added. “In that context it could be in the mix, but it’s definitely a long shot.”

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