WASHINGTON — All but giving up on Congress, President Obama has spent the year foraging for actions on various issues he could take on his own, and largely coming up with minor executive orders. But on Monday, he will unveil a plan to tackle climate change that may be his last, most sweeping effort to remake America in his remaining time in office.
The far-reaching regulations will for the first time force existing power plants in the United States to curb the carbon emissions that scientists say have been damaging the planet.
By using authority already embedded in law, Obama does not need Congress — and so, in this era of gridlock, he has a chance to transform the nation’s energy sector and, at the same time, his presidency.
“The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address, previewing Monday’s announcement. “But a low-carbon, clean-energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come.
“America will build that engine,’’ he said. “America will build the future, a future that’s cleaner, more prosperous, and full of good jobs.”
While the administration was still finalizing crucial elements of the plan, it was already clear that the economic stakes are enormous. The new regulation could eventually shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants.
Critics wasted little time arguing that the president’s unilateral plan abuses his power in a way that will cost jobs and raise energy prices for consumers.
“The administration has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs,” Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state, said in response to Obama’s Saturday address. “If it succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity — if we can get it. Our pocketbook will be lighter, but our country will be darker.”
Almost by default, climate change looks to be the defining domestic initiative of Obama’s second term.
His aspirations to enact gun control measures, pass a jobs plan, overhaul the tax code, and reach a grand bargain on long-term spending all have eluded him amid Republican opposition. He may yet negotiate legislation liberalizing immigration policy, but otherwise harbors little hope for major new domestic action.
In taking on climate change, Obama is returning to one of the themes of his first campaign for president when he vowed that his election would be remembered as the moment when “our planet began to heal.”
His inability to live up to that lofty rhetoric has deeply frustrated many supporters, and he personally urged his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Gina McCarthy, to draft an ambitious regulation in time to ensure that it is finalized before he leaves office.
Having failed to pass climate legislation through the Senate in his first term, Obama has used his own power to advance his goals, including increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
In seeking to limit power plants, he is finally addressing the most significant source of carbon pollution.
“It’s the most important and the biggest reductions that we’ll get,” said John D. Podesta, the president’s counselor and a prime advocate of environmental policies.
And yet the president seems to have chosen a low-wattage rollout of the plan. He will not unveil it in a televised East Room address or travel to some out-of-town venue for a big speech, as he has for moves of far less import.
Instead, he will leave it to McCarthy to announce Monday, while he plays a supporting role by making a telephone call to the American Lung Association.
That may reflect the complicated politics of the issue. Republicans are not the only ones concerned about economic costs, or for that matter political ones. Democrats from coal-producing states are acutely nervous with midterm elections approaching.