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Obama takes steps to invoke Nixon-era law to help climate

President Obama would expand the scope of a Nixon-era law that was first intended to force agencies to assess the effect of projects on air, water, and soil pollution.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

President Obama would expand the scope of a Nixon-era law that was first intended to force agencies to assess the effect of projects on air, water, and soil pollution.

WASHINGTON — President Obama is preparing to tell federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.

The result could be significant delays for natural gas export facilities, ports for coal sales to Asia, and even new forest roads, industry lobbyists warn.

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‘‘It’s got us very freaked out,’’ said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based group that represents 11,000 companies such as Exxon Mobil and Southern Co.

The standards, which constitute guidance for agencies and not new regulations, are set to be issued in the coming weeks, said lawyers briefed by administration officials.

In taking the step, Obama would be fulfilling a vow to act alone in the face of a Republican-run House unwilling to pass measures limiting greenhouse gases.

He would expand the scope of a Nixon-era law that was first intended to force agencies to assess the effect of projects on air, water, and soil pollution.

‘‘If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,’’ Obama said in his State of the Union address. He pledged executive actions ‘‘to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.’’

The president is pressing Congress to create a $2 billion clean-energy research fund with fees paid by oil and gas producers.

While some US agencies already take climate change into account when assessing projects, the new guidelines would apply across-the-board to all federal reviews. Industry lobbyists say they worry that projects could be tied up in lawsuits or administrative delays.

For example, Ambre Energy Ltd. is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a coal export facility at the Port of Morrow in Oregon. Under existing rules, officials weighing approval would consider whether ships in the port would foul the water or generate air pollution locally.

The Environmental Protection Agency and activist groups say that review should be broadened to account for the greenhouse gases emitted when exported coal is burned in power plants in Asia.

Similar analyses could be made for the oil sands that would be transported in Trans­Canada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline and leases to drill for oil, gas and coal on federal lands, such as those for Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp.

If the new White House guidance is structured correctly, it will require those kinds of reviews, said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington.

Lawyers and lobbyists are now waiting for the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality to issue the long bottled-up standards for how agencies should address climate change under the National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of their actions before making decisions. Those reviews don’t mandate specific action. They provide a chance for citizens and environmentalists to weigh in before regulators decide on an action.

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