Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean-air program, said the president can no longer afford to delay regulating existing plants, the single biggest step the administration can take to meet its global pledge of cutting the nation's carbon output to 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
While carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants fell 13.1 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, they rose 7.1 percent the first quarter of this year as natural gas prices shot up and utilities started burning more coal. Overall, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States rose 3 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with a 4 percent drop in 2012.
The NRDC has proposed a plan for regulating existing plants that would let states use different routes to meeting federal standards, including credits for utilities that implement broad energy efficiency programs. It would also let utilities average their emissions from old plants with the zero emissions they would get from pursuing new renewable energy projects. NRDC estimates its plan would cost industry $4 billion but save many times that in health benefits.
"The president confronts many threats that appear more urgent, but none are more important to his legacy," Lashof said.
The administration recently changed the way it estimates the social cost of carbon, which it uses to calculate the costs and benefits of climate rules. Regulators now assume it is worth about $36 per ton to avoid emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared with the $22 per ton they used before.
Scott Segal, a lobbyist for coal-fired utilities, said that he found the cost estimate change "sobering" and that it will allow the administration to impose costlier rules by exaggerating benefits.
The administration has already delayed a proposed rule aimed at regulating greenhouse gas emissions from any new power plant; while Obama will also pursue that policy, individuals said, the EPA will modify the rule or re-propose it before finalizing it.
Even as Obama lays out his climate change plan this week, he will steer clear of making a definitive statement on the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists have turned into a litmus test of the administration's stance on global warming. The State Department is still reviewing whether to grant a permit to the project, which would ship heavy crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
As Vice President Biden has traveled the country this month appearing at a series of fundraisers, environmentalists have pressed him to commit to blocking the presidential permit. But on multiple occasions, Biden has emphasized that is a decision the president will make in the future, and his role will be to offer advice just before Obama makes the call.
"I'm the vice president," he has told people, with an emphasis on the third word.
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