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Will Obama bypass Congress to limit emissions?

Justin Rowlatt | 13:21 UK time, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Washington, DC - The Obama administration will set a limit on the carbon emissions of the United States, whether or not the climate change bill the President proposed last week is passed by Congress and the Senate, I reported on BBC Newsnight yesterday.


Do not underestimate the importance of this.

If America imposes a limit on its carbon dioxide emissions it really is a "game-changer". It would send an absolutely unambiguous signal to the world that the Obama Administration is serious about climate issues, and means that an international agreement to tackle global warming might actually be possible.

I had spent the day watching the culmination of the Power Shift summit of young activists.

The climax was a rally outside the Capitol.


And then a separately organised march to the coal and gas fired station that generates heat and power for the congressional building itself.

Then I rushed across Washington to file my story.

It was the result of an exclusive interview with John Podesta, a key Obama administration insider. He is the man who oversaw President Obama's transition and is the President of the Center for American Progress.

He told me: "there is no question that a cap is coming."

Last week, President Obama proposed a climate bill which would establish cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon dioxide emissions. The President's Budget published last week said the cap would reduce America's carbon dioxide emissions by 14% below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.

The problem for the administration is that it is not expected that the bill will pass both houses of Congress. The question has been whether that would derail its plans to limit emissions.

John Podesta says it will not. He told me that the Obama administration will use the existing powers of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a limit on carbon dioxide emissions. And remember, this is the man who oversaw the planning of the new administration's policies.

"Failure is not an option", he said. "The President has tremendous authority under existing law to really move this country forward. Under the Clean Air Act in particular he can directly regulate power plant emissions, he can directly regulate tail pipe emissions from autos and so I think the Congress has to be aware that if they completely fail in their job, there's someone in the Oval Office who's going to get the job done for the American people."

Watch my report and what John Podesta had to say here:

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The EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, has already said she was considering acting on the April 2007 Supreme Court decision that empowers the EPA to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

She confirmed that when I spoke to her on Friday, after she had addressed the opening rally of the Power Shift summit.

She told me: "[the] EPA is already, as you know, taking some moves to begin to wake up its regulatory regime and we're certainly there to backstop our President."

I asked whether that meant that America could have a cap on carbon even if Congress failed to pass the legislation. She said that she remained optimistic that the legislation would be made law: "but we're going to say that EPA is on the job and is constantly working and looking at the carbon emissions issue."

Using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide would not be easy because so much of what we all do each day involves the emission of greenhouse gases.

Time Magazine described trying to regulate the six billion tons of CO2 America emits every year as "like trying to gather up the ocean".

However, the administration's threat to use the EPA is hugely significant. It signals that a cap is coming whether Congress likes it or not. The administration will be hoping it will encourage legislators to pass the market-based system President Obama proposed last week, which would be more straightforward to implement.

John Podesta believes that it is possible that the cap on emissions could be in place by the end of this year. He is in no doubt what an important change it will be.

"It's an economic revolution in our country", he told me yesterday. "It will be as important as the Industrial Revolution was in the nineteenth century. To begin that process of, not only using power and energy more efficiently, but also producing it through clean, renewable resources - once it starts, it won't be stopped... It's gonna happen."

Please leave your comments below telling me whether you support America imposing a limit on emissions.

This afternoon we're jumping on a train all the way to Texas, a 48 hour journey, and we're hoping for some well-earned rest.

I'll write more about how America is the "game-changer" on climate in my next blog


  • Comment number 1.

    Sure, I support a cap on emissions but only as an intermediate step towards the implementation of new energy technologies. An emissions cap does give us a little more time, and I think we need it. In the long run, though, I don't think we win the battle against global warming without a game changing technological breakthrough of some sort.

  • Comment number 2.

    As with almost all laws, while the laws sometimes have their intended effect short term, they backfire long term; patches just make things worse.

    For example, we can expect:
    1)Multiple exemptions and exceptions for those who pay their bribes through the PACs to the party in power (Dem or Rep).
    2)More gas generators, if price caps make commercial power too expensive.
    3)General degradation of power plant efficiency as resources that would be used to improve efficiency are instead used to pay for regulation.
    4)Impairment of tools used to measure CO2 emissions, both explicitly and implicitly.

    For more examples explore

    A far better solution would be the President endorsing private civic and professional organizations that would endorse power plants as being "green". Verification should be paid for by those power companies that choose to participate, and participation of power companies should be entirely voluntary. Then the US citizens can vote with their wallets.

    Private organizations, whether for profit or not, disappear if they don't do their job. Government organizations just get bigger.

    Joseph D. Rudmin

  • Comment number 3.

    Congratulations - with thanks Justin - on your excellent concise report to Jezmo el peacedude on the status of preparations for the american industrial revolution - and enjoy the train ride to Texas. America via Amtrak is a good move.

    This morning there is a report on National Public Radio (the other large scale free media conduit along with broadband internet access here) with costed housing insulation projects proposed in Wilmington Ohio which illustrates the essential viability of putting energy issues at the heart of economic activities meeting needs; have a listen. A nationwide valid idea.

    The EPA emissions cap route will be legal, as well as vital insurance against current political habitual opposition to whatever the lobbyists are lobbying against.

    When endemic compromise that undermines the spirit of compromise dominates, sound economic practice is diminished in pandemic fashion taking standards to revised lows

    suggesting to some more reductions of standards to stimulate the revitalization of industries . . or so lobbyists from some energy industries would have us believe. Energy efficiency and clean energy are the anathemas to fossil fuel industries being lost profits and sustainable potentially independent competition.

    Take note that they are also heavy investors in progressive clean technologies, just not so heavy as to quite support the clean up of the consequences of their operations or to admit the true costs to their balance sheets

    We may now be coming to the end of the era of being persuaded that it is uneconomic to make progress, in effect, and this is possible because the fog is clearing just as fast as the core principals of the elected are being tested for vital signs of values beyond those paid for by campaign contributions

    Is it now practically impossible to for some to remain honest in politics? The EPA option provides cover for all those strong enough and wise willed professional political characters in both houses and in both parties who know when doing the right thing and being seen to be doing the right thing isn't only ethical and economically informed, but also good for credibility, survival, and the means to avoid being damaged by sustaining the compulsory position of obedience demanded by vested interests requiring opposition at any cost.

    Groucho Marx, playing Professor Wagstaff in the hilarious movie Horsefeathers (1932) sings " I don't know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I'm against it "

    Seems like the new administration is openly preparing to extend the courtesy to each and every member of congress to consider opting for industrial progress and limits on waste and pollution as individuals who share the same risks, to realize the same potential benefits and address critical issues in non-partisan (beyond bipartisan) fashion, in stark contrast to the previous preference for unelected for executive order, policy of concealment style.

    Even when it comes to the EPA legal route, were it without the support of conclusive numbers in both houses, those in opposition might consider what the substance of their platforms consist of as, should this energy revolution not succeed, there will be sore and urgent need for their best ideas to be offered.

    It should be obvious by now but is still valid to state the obvious that these and all ideas are encouraged at this time, for only too obvious reasons. So, to encourage input, these other ideas would consist of further tax cuts and?

    What has been regulated and compromised is history and the pace of change. A tax cut means more when you have employment.

  • Comment number 4.


  • Comment number 5.

    Thank God for Obama!. The rebublicans and all thier "kill the world followers" wont be able to stop the move forward on reducing carbon emissions. Thier party is in the self destruct mode and it shows. Kill man with war and kill the planet with pollution. The world is changing and the GOP is not. Goodbye Republicans!

  • Comment number 6.

    WOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! (comment #4 from sadevito) - as well as agreeing with the content and sentiment, the style looks familiar. .

  • Comment number 7.

    What you seem to misunderstand is that failing passage by our elected representatives and doing it anyway is rule by fiat, not democracy. Doing it in the middle of the worst economic crisis in seventy years is stupidity. Mark my words, he'll go down in history with the likes of Carter.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This is exactly what he hired Cass Sunstein to do. No surprises there.

    Cap and trade is essentially musical chairs. Each time the music stops the cap is reduced, in effect removing another chair. Consequently, each time the cap is reduced, the market price of emissions will go up. As the price of being allowed to pollute increases, the polluters that can reduce emissions most efficiently (i.e., at the lowest cost) will sell their allotments at the highest price to those who cannot. Eventually the process will squeeze out carbon dioxide emssions at the lowest cost.

    Sunstein has lectured on this for the best part of twenty years.

  • Comment number 10.


    I have to support President Obama decision and bypass the Congress on this issue and do it thru an Executive Order....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 11.

    I'll give you all a clue .. it's all to do with the money

    The CO2 tax will be the first global tax

  • Comment number 12.

    This will be very very expensive and for what? CO2 is an unlikely cause of the very minor warming we had up until 1998.

  • Comment number 13.

    THE HEIGHT OF IGNORANCE ! what we breath out is Co2, what plants breath in is Co2. More Co2 more life, Climate science is the least known of the sciences, BUT !! lets listen to Al Gore after all hes the one that invented the internet !

  • Comment number 14.

    I am a semi-retired Engineer who has performed some work in both Energy Conservation and Environmental Affairs for a Major Fortune 100 company for many years.

    I truly do not understand how the global warming we are now experiencing is caused by an increase of atmospheric CO2. Therefore, I am not convinced that the USA should spend any money (let alone, $ Billians/year)on this issue at this time.

    However, I do think we should be very sensitive to this, and take appropriate action when needed. There are so many discepancies in the temperature record, I do not trust it. The 'best' record is from the satellites, and that record only encompasses the past 35 years, or so...and, so far, it shows no 'significant' global warming, certainly not enough to cause us to take action.

    I detest the fact that this subject has now been taken over by politics, with the science being pushed to the far background. Science is not politics. A good theory can stand up to the test of time and competition. It can also be modified, if needed, becomming more robust. There is no need to hide from critics, indeed, a good theory welcomes criticism from all sides. Maybe, just maybe, there is a small flaw in the theory which will necessitate a modification. All the beter! Science is never 'settled'; it is always evolving, becomming better and better over time. Debate in the open is encouraged! The end result is to achieve perfection.

    Global warming as science is vastly complicated and a suitable all-encompasing theory regarding our world-wide weather system is far from complete. To stop evolving now, and implement measures to change it, seems to me a foolish waste of valuable money and resources.

    On the other hand, how long do you wait (how close to perfection must you be) before action is demanded! I am old enough to remember well the predicion in the 70's of an impending Ice Age!

    I say: let's wait a while longer. This Global Warming seems to be waning. Maybe after the current cold spell it will warm again....


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