How the next president could expand Obama’s climate policies — or dismantle them

So let’s say a conservative hostile to Obama’s climate policies becomes president in 2016. What options does he actually have?

1) Sign a bill that handcuffs the EPA. If next year’s election brings us a Republican president with majorities in the House and Senate, he or she could always just pass a bill amending the Clean Air Act and curtailing the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gas emissions. Boom, done. This could range from blocking or modifying the Clean Power Plan to barring the EPA from ever regulating CO2 emissions in any sector.

2) Replace the Clean Power Plan with a new regulation. Alternatively, let’s imagine our Republican president doesn’t have majorities in Congress. Now things get trickier. A President Scott Walker can’t just refuse to regulate greenhouse gas emissions entirely. After all, the Supreme Court has ordered the EPA to do so as long as there’s evidence they cause harm (and that evidence is quite solid.)

So instead, a new president might have to take subtler steps to weaken Obama’s climate policies. Take the Clean Power Plan, which will force states to start cutting power plant emissions by 2022. One option is for a Republican president to initiate a new rulemaking process through the EPA to either undo Obama’s plan or replace it with another, less ambitious rule. The hitch? This would take at least 12 to 15 months — it involves a notice, a proposed rule, soliciting public comment, and so on. And the process would likely get bogged down by lawsuits from environmental groups (who are very, very skilled at this sort of litigation). Doable, but surprisingly difficult.

3) Implement the Clean Power Plan, but very loosely. Or the next president could opt for a quieter approach — allow Obama’s Clean Power Plan to proceed, but implement it weakly. In theory, there’s room to do this. Under the rule, states have to submit plans for how they’ll cut their power plant emissions by 2016, but they can request an extension until 2018. The EPA will then have to review the plans to make sure they’re robust. An administration that wasn’t very concerned about global warming might be able to get away with approving less aggressive plans from recalcitrant states like Texas or West Virginia.

“There’s a lot of latitude in the review process,” says Stanford’s Michael Wara. “The history of the Clean Air Act shows this. If you have a president who doesn’t like climate policy, they could basically signal to the states that they’re going to give a lot of compliance flexibility and allow states to make assumptions in their plan that reduce their costs.” This would likely involve seemingly arcane tweaks to models and baselines that would be harder for green groups to challenge in court.

Meanwhile, some states may outright refuse to submit any plans for reducing emissions. (Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, is already urging states to do exactly this.) If that happens, the EPA has the authority to impose its own federal plan on the states — but that implementation will be left to the next president. So, again, a Scott Walker administration could implement a federal rule that went easy on recalcitrant red states.

4) Fail to defend Obama’s climate regulations in court. Industry groups are planning to challenge aspects of the Clean Power Plan in court, and those cases will take years to resolve. Adele Morris, the policy director for the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that an administration hostile to Obama’s EPA rule could always just defend it weakly in court. Plus, if any parts of the rule do get struck down, the next administration will get to decide how to redo it.

5) Loosen up Obama’s fuel economy standards. A Republican administration could fiddle with other Obama climate rules, as well. For instance, the EPA has been ratcheting up fuel-economy standards for new cars and light trucks, which are now scheduled to rise from their current 35 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

But those numbers aren’t set in stone. These CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) rules come up for a midterm review in 2017. At that point, automakers could lobby to allow the standards to rise more slowly — particularly if sales of fuel-efficient vehicles continue to be sluggish due to low oil prices. And an administration skeptical of these rules would have some room to relax them.

How Hillary Clinton could expand Obama’s climate policies

1) Strengthen energy efficiency standards for homes and buildings. The Department of Energy has the ability to scale up or tighten various energy efficiency standards for household appliances, residential boilers, commercial ventilation equipment, and so forth. This would help reduce energy demand and CO2 emissions.

2) Expand programs to reduce HFCs. The Obama administration has already beguncracking down on HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas often used in refrigeration and air conditioning. In theory, the next president could direct the EPA to accelerate the phase-out of the worst of these gases and help bolster recycling programs and pursue alternatives.

3) Start regulating industrial CO2 sources. Similarly, the next president could set the EPA loose regulating other sources of CO2 emissions. Under Obama, the EPA has only regulated CO2 from vehicles and power plants. But the agency technically has the authority to regulate refineries, cement plants, petrochemical plants, and so on. The WRI report suggests that the EPA under the next president could use this power to improve end-use efficiency and fuel switching in the industrial sector and bring down US emissions even further.

4) Crack down on methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure. Under Obama, the EPA has already begun setting standards for methane leaks from new oil and gas wells. The next president could expand this authority to existing oil and gas wells — the source of 90 percent of leaks — as well as other natural gas infrastructure.

5) Expand fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. As noted above, federal fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks are currently set to keep risingeach year until they reach 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. The WRI report points out that the next president could tighten these standards further during the 2017 midterm review, or even extend them further — say, to 63 mpg by 2030. (Though, again, if low oil prices are blunting sales of fuel-efficient vehicles, this could be tough.)

6) Set carbon dioxide rules for aircraft. Countries around the world are planning to come to some sort of agreement on reducing emissions from flying in the next few years. The WRI report notes that the next administration could work with the EPA to set a rule to improve the fuel efficiency of new aircraft in the range of 2 to 3 percent annually.

7) Reduce methane from landfills and agriculture. The EPA has already proposedregulations on methane emissions from new landfills. It could go further to restrict emissions from existing landfills and coal mines, as well as look into ways to reduce emissions from agriculture (yes, that means tackling cow burps).