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Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.
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Power Politics

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Bush administration about-face on climate change? 

On Monday, the Washington Times shocked observers when it reported that President Bush is poised to “change course and announce as early as this week that he wants Congress to pass a bill to combat global warming.” According to the article, President Bush is supposedly preparing a list of “principles” to guide lawmakers and is going to call for legislation addressing climate change directly (as opposed legislation mandating higher vehicle fuel efficiency or promoting nuclear power plants, both of which are a step removed from direct cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and both of which have been supported by the administration in the past).

The Times explains the administration’s reasoning this way: “Bush administration officials have told Republicans in Congress that they feel pressure to act now because they fear a coming regulatory nightmare.” A similar story was published by the Associated Press on Monday.

Energy and manufacturing industry leaders have been warning lawmakers for years of an increasingly complicated maze of state efforts to address greenhouse emissions and climate change and the need for firm federal regulations to guide industry investments. While Wall Street dislikes regulation, it truly hates ambiguity; it would rather get fixed regulations so companies can begin to prepare for change than endless speculation and waiting. “This is an attempt to move the administration and the party closer to the center on global warming,” the Times quotes an administration source close to the White House who is familiar with the planning. Such a move could also bring the administration closer to Senator John McCain’s position on climate change.

It’s worth noting that nothing in the Times story comes out and clearly says the president is going to announce support for mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions, which the administration has consistently opposed. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, when asked questions about the stories at the White House press briefing on Monday referred to establishing a “national goal.” She said the “regulatory path that we are on right now is not sustainable” and “we aren’t necessarily against cap and trade proposals.”

But Perino wouldn’t commit the White House to support for a legislative proposal per se. “We are considering how to move forward on the regulatory path that we have. We are considering how to respond to legislative proposals that are in front of Congress right now,” she said when pressed on whether the White House was prepared to support a legislative proposal to address climate change.

Perino was then pressed again as to whether the White House will specifically put forward a legislative proposal on climate change:

Reporter: Has there been no decision whether to put forth legislation, or is there a decision to do that?

Perino: That’s true.

And later:

Reporter: Is there a package that you’re developing that’s primarily legislation, or is it more regulatory in whatever it is that you --

Perino: I would say it’s neither.

But Perino also would not say that an announcement isn’t forthcoming. Question from reporter: “Are you saying nothing will be coming out imminently?” Perino: “I’m saying that — no, I’m not going to say that. There could be something. I just don’t have anything for you today.” Asked whether the announcement might come on Earth Day — next Tuesday, April 22nd — Perino said: “It could be next week, it could be never. I just don’t have anything for you.”

Some Republicans see the White House’s apparent shift as bad news. “Republican members of Congress who were briefed last week let top administration officials know that they think the White House is making a mistake, according to congressional sources and others familiar with the discussions,” the Times reported. Lawmakers who are less-than-happy with the White House’s change-of-course (if it happens): Reps. John Shimkus (R.-Ill.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R.-Wisc.), according to the article. One Republican source in the AP story noted that “‘The meeting [on the Hill] was set up to float a few trial balloons’ and it did not go well, with some participants viewing it as ‛political appeasement’ on global warming.”

Meanwhile, the Senate is slated in June to debate a bipartisan climate change bill authored by Senators Joe Lieberman, (I.-Conn.) and John Warner, (R.-Va.), that would cap greenhouse gas emissions. (You can see that bill, in PDF format, here.)

The White House has clearly been making some moves on climate change recently. Earlier this month White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton (the administration’s go-to guy on climate change) confirmed that he had met with Rep. Rick Boucher (D.-Va.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R.-Mich.), respectively the chairman and the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality — the panel in charge of writing climate change legislation.

Ultimately, Perino refused to be pinned down on the issue when asked during Monday’s press briefing when an announcement would come. “We haven’t come forward yet and said definitively where we are, and that’s because we’re having a very robust discussion,” she said. She did, though, reiterate the White House’s opinion of the Lieberman-Warner bill, as well as of the general climate change regulatory framework:

Here in this country we are dealing with what we call a regulatory train wreck. We have several different laws that were never meant to deal with — to address climate change, heading down a path that we believe is not reasonable, nor sustainable, would hurt our economy, and is not good public policy. This would have the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act all addressing climate change in a way that is not the way that they were intended to....

We have been not shy about saying that we don’t support legislation that is currently on the Hill. We think that it would be bad for the economy, and that it wouldn’t — ultimately, it wouldn’t address the problem.

Perino noted that there will be a meeting with other major economic powers in Paris later this week that administration officials are slated to attend. The topic of climate change is expected to be on the table.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:33 am
File As: Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Climate Change