The Impending Environmental Blitz

There are perhaps more comprehensive assessments available of upcoming executive actions on climate change and related environmental issues than this morning’s Politico Magazine piece by Andrew Rusticcio and Erica Martinson. But none is likely to compare in conveying the intensity and bewildering variety of the struggle between the president and the congressional Republican leadership during the next few months, in which both sides must set some clear priorities amid procedural and legal chaos and over-simplified media coverage.

The Obama administration is set to roll out a series of climate and pollution measures that rivals any president’s environmental actions of the past quarter-century — a reality check for Republicans who think last week’s election gave them a mandate to end what they call the White House’s “War on Coal.”

Tied to court-ordered deadlines, legal mandates and international climate talks, the efforts scheduled for the next two months show that President Barack Obama is prepared to spend the remainder of his term unleashing sweeping executive actions to combat global warming. And incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have few options for stopping the onslaught, though Republicans may be able to slow pieces of it.

The coming rollout includes a Dec. 1 proposal by EPA to tighten limits on smog-causing ozone, which business groups say could be the costliest federal regulation of all time; a final rule Dec. 19 for clamping down on disposal of power plants’ toxic coal ash; the Jan. 1 start date for a long-debated rule prohibiting states from polluting the air of their downwind neighbors; and a Jan. 8 deadline for issuing a final rule restricting greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants. That last rule is a centerpiece of Obama’s most ambitious environmental effort, the big plan for combating climate change that he announced at Georgetown University in June 2013.

And that list doesn’t even include the June release of final regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from existing utility plants, supposedly the central front in the “war on coal.”

It definitely looks like we’ll be experiencing a high-stakes game of three-dimensional chess, with any hint of concessions by the administration setting off a high-stakes feeding frenzy among industry lobbyists to get themselves elevated in the GOP’s priority list. But for the most part the president has the stronger hand legally, and Republican noise is in part a recognition of Congress’ limited ability to stop or even influence regulations clearly authorized in laws dating back to the early 1970s. According to Rusticcio and Martinson, some interests hope to sneak through provisions protecting them from regulation while attention is elsewhere, and Mitch McConnell will be under some pressure to cut a deal or two to reinforce his claim that a Republican-run Senate can “get things done.”

But for the most part it’s going to be a good old-fashioned political war.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.