WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush could be forcing President-elect Barack Obama to act almost immediately to curb global warming, after years of the Bush administration's fighting attempts to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions.
In its final weeks, the Bush administration has moved to close what it calls "back doors" to regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It barred the Environmental Protection Agency from considering the effects of global warming on protected species. And, more broadly, it excluded carbon dioxide from a list of pollutants the EPA regulates under the Clean Air Act.
Environmentalists call it a last-minute attempt to block speedy, executive action by the president's successor on climate change, an issue that Obama repeatedly calls a top concern. But they say it could backfire, by prompting lawsuits and fueling fights over coal-fired power plants that the new administration would need to resolve quickly.
Obama "now has to clean up a mess," said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club, which has challenged the EPA over the Clean Air Act decision and plans to sue to block it. "They're forcing him to act sooner than he otherwise might have."
Energy industry lobbyists predict that the challenges will fail. They say the Bush administration's actions give Obama time and political cover to take a more deliberative approach to emissions regulation and avoid overly broad, overly swift rules that could slow construction projects for schools and businesses, not just power plants.
"I'm quite confident that the Obama administration will have no interest in coming in and immediately reversing" the decisions, said Jeffrey Holmstead, a former EPA clean air administrator who now represents energy industry clients at the lobbying firm Bracewell and Giuliani in Washington.
Underlying the debate is the issue of how the federal government should reduce America's emissions of the gases scientists blame for global warming, including carbon dioxide.
Maryland is among the states that have tried to fill a perceived vacuum left by Bush administration decisions, setting strict limits on power plant and tailpipe pollutants.
While Congress has long debated but never approved a so-called "cap-and-trade" system to limit carbon emissions, Maryland and other Northeastern states have taken such an initiative on their own.
Frustrated by lack of federal action, environmental groups have looked for other ways to fight global warming. They have pressed to list the polar bear, which has seen its habitat dwindle as ice caps melt, as a threatened species. The Interior Department consented this summer but later declared that any protection for the bears under the Endangered Species Act didn't extend to regulating greenhouse gases. Environmental groups also sued to force the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court ruled the EPA had the power to do that, but Bush officials have declined to exercise it.
EPA Administrator Steven Johnson issued a memo late last month - as part of a review for a proposed coal-fired power plant expansion in Utah - that excludes carbon dioxide from the list of pollutants the government must regulate under the Clean Air Act when approving construction projects.
Environmentalists called the memo a gift to the coal industry and utilities.
"This is a desperate attempt to interfere with the Obama administration's ability to deal with greenhouse gases from power plants," said John Walke, a former EPA attorney who is clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Industry lobbyists say the memo leaves the door open for Obama to regulate carbon dioxide eventually through the EPA - and that it gives him time to solve a broader problem. A broad rule, they say, risks lumping school expansions, office and even some home construction into the same regulatory process a power plant would face.
The memo allows Obama's team time to solve those issues, Holmstead maintains, so "they don't sweep in hundreds of thousands of small building projects around the country."