Range of Change: Obama to Signal Extent of Climate Push

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A woman waits for a bus in a flooded street in Miami Beach, Florida, from unusually high tides that some think are due to rising seas caused by climate change.

President Barack Obama is sure to bring up climate change in the State of the Union address, energy consultants say, though there’s no consensus on how much emphasis he’ll give to the subject.

“They’re going back and forth about how many times he’s going to actually say climate and change,” said Joshua Greene, a Washington attorney who represents energy developers and has talked to White House officials about the speech. “Right now the words ‘climate change’ are in the speech.”

Environmental groups criticized Obama for not mentioning the phrase in the presidential debates, then applauded when he made global warming a key part of his inaugural address last month. The president may return to the theme with a promise to take executive action if Congress doesn’t move on the issue, according to Michael McKenna, an oil-industry lobbyist and president of MWR Strategies Inc. in Washington.

“He will spend some time talking about climate change, focused on how he would prefer congressional action,” McKenna predicted in an e-mail. “But in the absence of that, he is prepared to proceed aggressively with  regulations.”

The president probably will avoid more controversial subjects such as TransCanada Corp.’s proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry heavy crude from western Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, McKenna said. Environmental groups that support Obama oppose the project, which is under State Department review.

Climate change will frame a broader presidential message on energy and the environment, Greene said in an interview, citing his talks with White House officials. This will include references to first-term policies aimed at developing renewable energy on federal lands, reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from government operations and pumping federal dollars into clean energy sources, he said.

Benefits of a U.S. natural gas boom enabled by a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, such as lower fuel prices and new oil field jobs, will also be noted with the caveat that fossil-fuel development shouldn’t come at the expense of clean air and water, Greene said.

Oil and gas producers have accused Obama of inconsistency in praising the boost in domestic production while calling for an end to industry tax breaks.

“We hope to hear no more of the contradictions like we’ve heard in years past,” Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a Washington-based group whose members include Anadarko Petroleum Corp., said in an interview. “While the president has said he supports development of natural gas supplies, at the same time he’s calling for tax increases on these same companies that provide the resources.”

Obama has already shown a willingness to use executive power to combat the threat of climate change. His Environmental Protection Agency, relying on authority in the four-decade-old Clean Air Act and a 2007 Supreme Court decision, is set to issue final rules for greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants by the end of March. The agency will then face legal and political pressure to issue related standards for existing plants, the largest source of those pollutants.

To help make the case for action, Obama may refer to the drought gripping much of the country and Hurricane Sandy that struck the Northeast in November, Greene said.Last week, the EPA released a proposal on how to adapt to climate change and federal agencies reported on efforts to reduce energy use.

“The overarching theme is, we have to address this pressing issue for our children, grandchildren, for future generations and for U.S. economic competitiveness,” Greene said.

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