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Obama Steers Clear on Climate

President Barack Obama’s first Earth Day proclamation in 2009 was an urgent call to address global warming. This year? The word “climate” didn’t even get a mention.

Four years ago, Obama and his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both ran on implementing a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. Obama still mentions climate change in some speeches. For example, he’ll make a push to extend clean energy tax breaks Thursday. Still, the White House has soft-pedaled the way it talks about it heading into a tough election in which the economy trumps all.

Gone are the urgent statements warning of melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Indeed, the energy and environment page at now shows a photo of the president walking in front of segments of oil pipeline, and the White House never neglects an opportunity to tout its support for domestic oil and natural gas drilling. In briefings on background, senior administration officials now talk about exporting fracking technology, which has caused natural gas production to boom and prices to fall.

Obama himself still mentions cap-and-trade, but mainly to point to how far the Republicans have moved to the right relative to McCain.

He did tell Rolling Stone magazine last month that climate change would remain a priority. “I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” Obama said. “There’s a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation.”

But scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen have taken the president to task for not making climate change a higher priority.

The White House strongly defends Obama’s record on climate change in the face of Congressional inaction. His biggest calling card is the deal his administration cut with the auto industry to double mileage standards. Obama’s Earth Day proclamation this year touted that policy, noting it will cut greenhouse gases while saving drivers at the pump.

“The President has made clear that we need an all of the above approach that relies on a broad range of domestic energy sources, with a focus on decreasing harmful emissions, including carbon pollution, and increasing our nation’s share of clean energy,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said. “That is why in the last two State of the Union Addresses the President has proposed a bold but achievable goal of generating 80 percent of energy from clean sources by 2035, including renewables like wind and solar, as well as natural gas, nuclear power, and clean coal.”

But the prospects for Obama accomplishing a climate change agenda in this Congress or the next are thin. Cap-and-trade is dead; its successor, the clean energy standard, isn’t going anywhere either; and the preferred route of some global warming activists — a new carbon tax to replace other taxes — doesn’t even appear on the radar screen.

Environmental activists, Senate Democrats and Republicans alike have noticed the White House’s shift, both in softened rhetoric and in using administrative tools to bypass Congress.

Republican critics say the White House has figured out that its policies aren’t popular, particularly in a still-sluggish economy. The White House instead is pushing administrative measures to accomplish the same results via Environmental Protection Agency regulations on power plants and the like. GOP lawmakers suggest the White House is hoping that it can push things under the radar.

“They are still for what the president was for four years ago, and what the president was for three years ago and two years ago, but I don’t believe they are going to talk about it,” Sen. Roy Blunt said.

The Missouri Republican said he expects the administration to slow-walk climate-related regulations and then pursue that route full-bore after the election.

“Everything now is very focused on Election Day,” he said.

“They change the language consistently,” said Sen. James Inhofe, the Senate’s leading climate change skeptic and the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “He has got to say things in a subtle way, a quiet way, to try to keep his base satisfied in thinking something still could happen.”

Inhofe said the failed cap-and-trade effort in Obama’s first two years also helped consolidate Republican opposition and snuff out chances for a big climate bill.

“In the Republican Party, it has lost its foothold,” Inhofe said. “People are aware of what it is and the costs.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer acknowledged the obvious about cap-and-trade or similar grand schemes to deal with the issue. “We don’t have support,” the California Democrat said. “We talk about clean energy, the jobs created, more fuel economy … instead of getting into an argument” over global warming itself. Indeed, the Senate hasn’t voted on broad climate legislation in almost five years, and when the House passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, Democrats were eviscerated back home for their support of the measure.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman said nothing’s likely to get through Congress this year with the possible exception of more green energy tax credits — part of Obama’s “to-do list.”

“Republicans don’t want to support any legislation that would deal with it in a meaningful way,” the New Mexico Democrat said.

Republicans continue to press the White House, saying that the Keystone XL pipeline issue crystallizes Obama’s dilemma between a public focused on jobs and environmental groups worried about the dangers of burning oil from Canada’s tar sands.

The White House has been moving slowly in the GOP’s direction, openly welcoming a new application for the pipeline but not yet pushing the State Department to finish its review before the election. The GOP has accused the White House of delaying a decision to avoid angering its environmental base or unions, which strongly support the pipeline.

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