Now that President Obama has selected his top climate and energy policymakers, having nominated Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ernest Moniz as energy secretary and Environmental Protection Agency air and radiation administrator Gina McCarthy to head EPA, the question still looms: how much can they get done using executive authority alone?
The answer: quite a lot, but it will involve taking some political risks. So here’s a list of some of the options McCarthy and Moniz will take, assuming both of them win confirmation.
Capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the power to regulate all air pollutants, and the agency determined in December 2009 that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions fall into this category. McCarthy helped oversee a proposal last spring to limit greenhouse gas emissions from any future power plants, which has yet to be finalized. While that stands a strong chance of becoming final sometime this year, the larger question is whether EPA will propose curbing greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired utilities. That move will yield major climate benefits: The World Resources Institute estimates it will make up 40 percent of the gap the United States faces right now in meeting its target of reducing its carbon output 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. But it will prompt an outcry from the coal industry and its Republican congressional allies, who already accuse the Obama administration of waging a war against coal.