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White House Plans Major New Push On Climate Change


The White House is planning a major new push on climate change. The initiative may include rules to limit emissions from existing power plants. That's a controversial move that environmentalists wanted for a long time. For more, NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from the White House. And Ari, up until now, where has climate change been on the president's list of priorities, would you say?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You know, he's had a mixed record. The stimulus bill at the start of his first term put a lot of money into green energy research. The administration persuaded car manufacturers later in the term to agree to strict new fuel efficiency standards. But on the other hand, the White House did not persuade Congress to pass a cap and trade bill limiting carbon emissions.

Some say that's because they didn't make it a high enough priority. And to the frustration of the environmental community, climate was really not something the president talked much about during his first term or during his reelection campaign.

BLOCK: But he did redress climate change at some length in his second inaugural address.

SHAPIRO: Right. And he's been talking more about global warming lately in general. In his second inaugural, everyone was surprised he spend eight lines on climate change, more than on any other single topic. And since that speech, he's brought up global warming in moments when arguably he didn't have to. Just yesterday, he was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, sweating in 90-degree heat and he said this about global warming.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is the global threat of our time and for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Melissa, the catch is that with the Congress that is not generally sympathetic to these ideas, President Obama can really only consider initiatives that he can take on on his own without any help from lawmakers.

BLOCK: Right. And we mentioned a major new push on this issue. What does the administration have in the works?

SHAPIRO: Well, according to the president's advisor on energy and climate change who spoke at a forum here in Washington yesterday, the president, as you said, is planning a major speech with a series of new initiatives and the most interesting new policy could be regulations limiting emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. This has been huge issue. As you said, these plants are America's single biggest global warming polluter.

And the White House has been working for a while on regulations for new power plants, but nobody's really building new coal-fired power plants anymore 'cause natural gas is so cheap. So a rule on existing plants would have a much bigger impact than a rule on new ones, but this is extremely controversial. Republicans and energy industry leaders argue that these regulations would kill jobs and slow economic growth.

And just a couple months ago, a Republican senator asked President Obama's EPA nominee whether the agency was developing existing power plant regulations and she said no. So if this happens, it would be a big change and also a very contentious one.

BLOCK: You know, Ari, we haven't mentioned one other issue that drums up a lot of passion on both sides and that's the Keystone XL Pipeline that the administration has to make a decision about, that would bring tar sands oil down from Canada.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, and that's one reason that environmental groups are still not totally thrilled with the president, even though they see this as a good development. The White House argues that both the environmental costs and the potential job benefits of the Keystone Pipeline are overstated. They have not come down on one side or the other of this project.

Just today, a group of former Obama campaign staffers wrote an open letter to the president urging him to reject the pipeline.

BLOCK: What do you make of the timing, Ari? If indeed the White House is going to be announcing new rules on power plants emissions, what's going on with the timing here?

SHAPIRO: Well, some of this just has to do with the second term when the handcuffs come off. President Obama does not have to run for reelection again and he's looking ahead to his legacy. He wants to be able to say that he did something significant to address this problem. And his first term, you know, included so many simultaneous crises - from the economic recession to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, he has both the bandwidth and the political freedom to do some of these things that either he wasn't able to do or maybe he just chose not to do before now.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Ari Shapiro at the White House. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.