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Obama Has Plenty of Work Left to Secure His Environmental Legacy

Alex Wong/ Getty Images

You could argue that President Barack Obama became a climate-change activist one year ago today. He unveiled his Climate Action Plan in a speech at Georgetown University where he promised significant cuts to greenhouse gas pollution, development of renewable energy, and improved energy efficiency. 

Since then, his biggest move was the EPA’s rule cutting carbon pollution from the single-largest source—coal-fired power plants. But to secure his environmental legacy, Obama still has some work left. Here’s what should come next:

Reducing carbon: There’s argument over just how ambitious the EPA’s carbon rules are, considering power plants don’t have very far left to go to meet requirements.

In draft form, they will require existing power plants to cut carbon 30 percent by 2030. Environmental groups would like to see something tougher from the final rule in June 2015, something like the Natural Resources Defense Council’s proposal of 35 percent cuts by 2020—but they’re not likely to get it. States have until mid-2016 to submit their plans to meet individual targets, which can include cap-and-trade, shutting down coal plants, added renewable energy, and energy-efficiency.

Cutting methane: Methane, which comes from landfills, cattle, and natural gas production, accounts for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases. In March, the White House released a strategy to cut methane emissions from new landfills, the fossil fuel industry, and agriculture industry, which directs the EPA to study what sort of regulations may be needed. So far, the White House has not said whether the EPA should regulate methane from natural gas, so the earliest any rule on this would come is in 2016.

International progress: The administration and its allies think the EPA coal rules can help launch renewed international talks. Reports say Obama plans to raise the issue at the G20 summit later this year. Last year, China and the U.S. agreed to phase out another potent greenhouse gas, hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in refrigerators and air conditioners.

Waiting on Keystone XL: There’s no official word on the fate of the tar sands pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf coast. Proponents of the pipeline want it to create jobs, while opponents say the heavy crude oil would harm the environment and undermine U.S. action on climate change. The delay, along with Obama’s overall climate push, has given activists hope where there once was none that the pipeline might be permanently sidelined. Al Gore, at least, thinks it means Obama will say no.

You may notice that none of these steps involve Congress. You may also notice that none go as far as environmentalists would like. These facts are related. Obama is limited to executive actions, because Congress won't take action. And that limits the universe of what he can do. The question is whether he makes the most of his authority. 
Environmentalists have criticized Obama for his "all-of-the-above" approach to energy, which includes relying heavily on fossil fuels. They were also not happy in May, when the White House put out a report touting his administration's success developing oil, coal, and natural gas, along with wind and solar. 
But they were happy about the power plant rules—even if they think the rules should be stronger. And the White House has recently given the issue a great deal of attention. On Wednesday night, he'll be speaking to the League of Conservation Voters, a climate advocacy group. That's not the kind of speech he'd give if he weren't planning to make climate change a priority going forward.