The White House is throwing its weight behind new power plant regulations.
Using a carefully executed, months-long strategy, the Obama administration is sending a strong signal that it believes Democrats have the upper hand on public opinion concerning emissions limits on power plants.
The White House prepared the runway months in advance of the June 2 landing for the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal, which aims to slash carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
It's the single largest effort by the EPA to address climate change, but it's also prompted harsh criticism from conservatives and centrist Democrats for what they have labeled an example of regulatory overreach.
The Obama administration has said it fully expects to face legal challenges. Once the rule is finalized in June 2015, the White House is expecting Republicans to try to force a Senate vote on the regulation through the Congressional Review Act, a maneuver used to let Congress have a say on regulations that have a significant economic impact. Industry groups and Republicans will take continued whacks at the proposal as well.
But the White House has said, in both words and action, bring it on.
"In some states where this is an issue that presents different political challenges, particularly coal-producing states, and there's no doubt that the polluters will come after this rule and will try to attack it ... and they'll try to put it squarely in the context of the political campaigns," White House adviser John Podesta said Friday at a Washington event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "But I think if anyone who wants to go out and talk about the benefits of this rule ... I think they'll find that the politics is such that you can defend taking action here and the public will support it."
White House lays the groundwork
The preparation hit full tilt in January when the White House brought aboard Podesta, a former Bill Clinton chief of staff who led President Obama's 2008 transition team, to help develop the political framework around the rule. That underscored that the Obama administration wanted to get the political intricacies of the proposed rule correct out of the gate, compared to other splashy pushes, such as Obamacare, which got off to rocky starts, said David Goldston, director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"There's no question they've learned from past battles," Goldston said at a recent event at the group's Washington headquarters.
The White House in recent months has released the National Climate Assessment, a region-by-region analysis of the effects climate change is having on every aspect of the economy, hosted a solar energy summit, and made new commitments to curb emissions from heavy-duty trucks and expand energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities. It also last month published a report that praised the domestic oil-and-gas boom and recent jobs growth in the wind and solar energy sectors.
One day before the EPA announced the proposed rule, Obama contacted a group of congressional Democrats and urged them to go on offense to support it — even though it might prove anathema to Democrats' prospects of maintaining a Senate majority, as several incumbents are running in red-leaning states.
EPA launches full-scale campaign
Along the way, the EPA has engaged with groups bashing the climate push.
The agency lambasted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a report ahead of the proposed rule's release that ended up using a far bigger estimate for emissions cuts than the EPA settled on, saying it would cost the economy $50 billion annually. GOP lawmakers have used the Chamber's findings when blasting the proposed rule, even though the Chamber itself admitted that it now needs time to assess the potential economic impact.
Meanwhile, the EPA enlisted its staff on blogs and through mass emails to discredit claims from industry and right-leaning groups, set up a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and released a schedule showing a full week of events where she will be pitching the proposed rule, and circulated media stories about it.
"Remember when we predicted that the special interests and their allies would waste no time launching false attacks on EPA's common-sense proposal to limit carbon pollution? It didn't take long for them to prove us right," said a blog post by Tom Reynolds, associate administrator in the EPA's office of external affairs, about a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation that criticized the proposed rule.
Pushing public health
Rather than focus on the science and extreme weather that's linked to climate change — which the White House says has contributed to increased frequency of wildfires, more intense storms and declining productivity in some sectors of the economy, such as agriculture — the Obama administration has primarily touted the more indirect public health benefits from the proposed rule.
The EPA estimates the proposed rule, which isn't scheduled for finalization until June 2015, would result in 25 percent reductions in smog- and soot-forming particulate matter from shuttering older coal-fired power plants. That would avert 150,000 asthma and 2,100 heart attacks when fully implemented, with low-income residents and minorities who are most likely to live close to older power plants seeing the biggest improvements.
"There are huge public health benefits that will come from this rule," Podesta said. "Climate change itself will increasingly be a problem for public health."
While Republicans have centered on the effect the proposed rule would have on disposable income because they expect electricity rates to rise, Democrats say the public health benefits would disproportionately aid low-income residents — and, in turn, save on averted medical costs. By focusing on the public health issue, with the EPA-estimated 224,000 potential jobs created through transitioning to renewable energy and natural gas, Podesta and the rest of the White House say Democrats have a winning message.
Climate change a political winner?
Senate Democrats plan to make climate change, and the proposed rule, a focal point. A handful of them, including Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., are scheduled to take to the floor Monday to discuss solutions to climate change. They've extended the offer to participate to Republicans, though there's no word yet as to whether there are any GOP takers.
A Washington Post/ABC poll released last week showed 70 percent of respondents supported federally regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, including 69 percent of respondents who live in states that get a majority of power from coal. The same percentage said states should be required to limit greenhouse gas emissions within their borders -- 57 percent of Republicans agreed, including 50 percent of Tea Party respondents (45 percent disagreed with state caps).
Republicans have taken aim at the proposed rule, especially for the effect it might have on coal-heavy states and low-income households. Even some Democrats fighting for Senate seats have taken that line -- Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., berated the proposed rule in an advertisement after the rule was released, and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., also denounced the proposal.
The EPA estimated the proposed rule would result in a 24 percent decline in coal production as well as cheaper coal. It estimated electricity bills would increase 3 percent in the short term, but eventually fall 9 percent between 2020 and 2030 due to energy-efficiency improvements — though the Chamber, along with energy industry experts, have questioned the EPA's energy-efficiency projections.
While many GOP lawmakers deny or are skeptical of the scientific consensus that human activity, largely through burning fossil fuels, drives greenhouse gas emissions that contributes to climate change, that hasn't been much of the party's criticism of the rule. The message has been on the potential effect on electricity prices and regulatory overreach — which environmental groups and Democrats have taken to mean Republicans sense their position on climate change is untenable.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, last month on ABC's "This Week" questioned how much human activity contributed to climate change. Environmental groups and Democrats slammed the remarks -- two days after the "This Week" interview aired, Rubio clarified his comments by omitting questions about the role of human activity, saying that the U.S. acting alone to curb emissions wouldn't blunt climate change if other big polluters, such as China, failed to act as well.
"We're going to be having a series of debates on the Senate floor, but we're also going to engage in our individual communities," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told the Washington Examiner. "I think what has changed in terms of the politics is that people in their hometowns are realizing that climate change is impacting the American way of life and the American economy. Public opinion is shifting, and the Republicans are on the wrong of history and they know it."
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to reflect Sen. Marco Rubio's recent comments on the effect human activity has on climate change.