If the Senate does not pass a cap and trade bill this year—a prospect that seems increasingly likely—the Obama administration may start pressuring legislators by moving to regulate CO2 itself.
Yesterday, as leading Senate Democrats announced they were putting off introducing a cap and trade bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson let it be known that her agency would probably classify CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act "in the next months," triggering her ability to regulate it without approval from Congress. The so-called "endangerment finding," long sought by environmentalists, was announced in April but has yet to be formalized. It would hypothetically allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases much as it does other forms of air pollution, by capping point-source emissions and fining polluters.
Jackson and President Obama have said that they prefer letting Congress regulate greenhouse gas emissions instead of doing it through the executive branch, a process that might prove more cumbersome and disruptive to the economy. Still, with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans under intense pressure to block or water down the bill, Obama might gain a strategic edge by getting more specific about how he'd tackle the issue if they don't. That could in turn give some legislators political cover, allowing them to tell their corporate overseers and conservative constituents that voting for the bill was in their "best interests"—a way of averting something even stricter. (Indeed, even the hint of the threat has already swayed one prominent Republican, Grist notes).
Would that approach mean much bigger political risks for Obama? Of course. But it might be worth it: By 2012, when Americans realize that their electric bills haven't skyrocketed, gas doesn't cost $4 a gallon, and coal miners are still employed, Obama's stance on global warming might be old news, or even a plus at the ballot box.