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Union Address: Climate change still real, federal action still lacking

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Cally Carswell | Jan 29, 2014 12:35 PM

For any American who believes that climate change is not only real but one of the most pressing issues of our time, it's oddly invigorating to hear one's President declare the debate "settled," as Obama did last night in his State of the Union address. "Climate change is a fact," he followed. It's exciting to hear a politician in his position confidently brush aside climate denial. And also a little sad. It's been years since a sweeping majority of scientists agreed that climate change was happening, and humans were helping it to. It's been one year since Obama's second inaugural address, that barn burner in which he proclaimed that God "commanded" the planet to our care, and explained that basic American values demanded a response to climate change: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity."

And yet, here we are. A year later, we have only a little more to show for ourselves where federal action is concerned. Here we are, still stuck in a political zeitgeist in which the President is compelled to remind Congress that the world really is warming up, and that a reduction in carbon emissions really is necessary to slow the trend. The more the actual climate changes, the more the political climate seems to stay the same.

There was little news in the speech on energy and the environment. Rather, there was affirmation of the President's continued enthusiasm for natural gas, and there were small assurances that the more ambitious environmental initiatives the administration has embarked on are still in motion. Those are, most notably, carbon emission limits for existing power plants, and regulations for fracking on federal lands to better protect air and water quality. Draft rules for power plants are expected from the Environmental Protection Agency this summer. After repeated delays, it's unclear when the fracking regulations -- or guidelines, as it may be -- will land, though E.P.A. chief Gina McCarthy recently reassured environmentalists that the agency is on task.

McCarthy's assurances did little to quell unrest among environmentalists, who are angered that the agency washed its hands of three investigations into drilling and water contamination -- including the infamous case of Pavillion, Wyo. -- by allowing the states to take over the inquiries. Obama provided the same cold comfort last night, saying that "my administration will keep working with the (natural gas) industry to sustain production and jobs growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, our communities," but offering no specifics nor a timeline. (He made a similarly vague promise in his State of the Union two years ago.) He reemphasized his support for natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a less carbon intensive energy future, asking Congress to support construction of natural gas fueling stations across the country to help cars and trucks transition off foreign oil. Of course, if that happens, it may do more to cement natural gas as a fixture in our energy mix than as a "bridge" to anything.

It's unclear if Obama's emphasis on executive action in the face of Congressional gridlock will mean anything new for climate issues. Since he took office, climate policy has been made only by circumventing Congress. Obama has already used executive orders to mandate increased energy efficiency, to begin planning measures to adapt to climate change, and to require the federal government to triple its use of renewable energy. Beyond that, most of the action on climate is happening in the agencies, especially the EPA. While there is still hope that Congress can get its act together to pass immigration reform, hope for comprehensive climate legislation evaporated a couple years ago.

Of particular interest to Westerners was a little remarked upon line in Obama's speech: "I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations" -- an indication that new national monument designations are in the offing. Otherwise, though, the big energy and environment story of the year looks little different than it did before Obama took the podium: The carbon emission rules for existing power plants are still the administration's best opportunity to make significant progress on climate issues -- and to define its climate legacy.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. She tweets @callycarswell.

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