If a flurry of climate change initiatives is an attempt by the administration to soften up environmental supporters ahead of an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, green groups say President Obama better think twice.
While complimenting Obama’s calls for a $1 billion climate change resiliency fund and tougher fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks, they say none of that will make up for green-lighting Keystone.
If Obama approves Keystone, it will provoke a “vehement reaction” from environmental groups, said David Goldston, director of governmental affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“People have speculated that a push in climate policies could be some kind of trade-off but for the environmental community there is no such trade-off on Keystone XL,” Goldston said. “I don’t think that’s a strategy that would work in terms of the environmental movement either substantively or politically.”
Environmental groups acknowledge widespread speculation that Obama will look to burnish his climate change credentials as a way to soften the blow of approving Keystone. Doing so could help several Democratic Senate candidates — most notably Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.).
But they reject any link between Keystone and Obama’s recent announcements.
Dan Weiss, the director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, said he doesn’t believe the administration has made a decision yet on Keystone.
“Any decision is a long way off,” Weiss said. “Those who think they know what the president is going to do — it’s wishful thinking. I don’t believe even the president knows what he’s going to do on this subject.”
Midterm prospects will certainly play into the White House’s calculations.
In an ideal world for the White House, executive actions on climate change would reinvigorate liberal voters while building the perception that Obama is accomplishing goals despite bitter partisanship in Washington.
“The president needs to demonstrate to voters that he’s willing and able to act in the face of persistent intransigence,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “And he’s doing so on issues the base of the Democratic Party cares deeply about, that activists who not only vote themselves but get others to participate care deeply about.”
“It’s about executive power,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer. “He’s made it very clear he’s going to act whether or not Congress is going to join him. It’s about trying to show that he still has strength.”
In the past, the administration has been quick to say that a yes on Keystone would not dictate Obama’s climate legacy.
“We have been making great strides forward. No one project is going to take that away from us,” Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said in October.
Some of Obama’s proposals are unlikely to go forward.
The $1 billion resiliency fund would require congressional approval.
“It’s not going to happen. Congress isn’t going to go there,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told The Hill.
Hoeven said it’s a “possibility” that Obama is readying green groups for a Keystone approval.
“If he does approve it, I think he will have these other initiatives the he is touting that back up his promise for investing in climate change,” Hoeven said. “He may be putting these out there as part of possibly approving it.”
Other observers suggest the president’s push could be more pragmatic.
“This is happening now because it’s all part of the overall plan to cement the president’s legacy on climate change,” Goldston said.
Obama on Tuesday called for new fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for big rigs and semi-trucks by 2016.
He’s separately pressed for tougher regulations on coal-fired power plants meant to reduce emissions.
To get all of that done before he leaves office, Obama must stick to an aggressive schedule, Goldston said.
“Senior administration officials understand how little time is really left in the second term,” said another environmentalist. “The fuel economy rules for trucks, for instance, are set to be implemented by March of 2016. The rule making process must begin now in order to reach that deadline.”
The hiring of John Podesta has intensified those efforts, activists say. In President Clinton’s second term, Podesta drove a slew of environmental rules as chief of staff, including reducing arsenic levels in drinking water and sulfur levels in diesel fuel.
“He was brought in as a signal that they are serious about this and he is making sure the plans are as forceful as possible,” Goldston said.