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US Federal Climate Change Law in Obama’s Second Term

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2014

Michael B. Gerrard
Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School, New York, NY (US). Email:
Shelley Welton
Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School, New York, NY (US). Email:


This commentary details the United States’ progress in advancing climate change law since President Barrack Obama’s re-election in 2012, in spite of congressional dysfunction and opposition. It describes how the Obama administration is building upon earlier regulatory efforts by using existing statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from both new and existing power plants. It also explains the important role the judiciary has played in facilitating more robust executive actions, while at the same time courts have rejected citizen efforts to force judicial remedies for the problem of climate change. Finally, it suggests some reasons why climate change has gained more prominence in the Obama administration’s second term agenda and considers how domestic actions help the United States to reposition itself in international climate diplomacy.

Symposium: Global Climate Governance Without The Us
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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This contribution is part of a collection of articles growing out of the conference ‘Global Climate Change Without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable’, held at Yale University Law School, New Haven, CT (United States), 9–10 Nov. 2012.


1 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, 11–22 Nov. 2013, Warsaw (Poland), available at: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), New York, NY (US), 9 May 1992, in force 21 Mar. 1994, available at:

2 See L. Friedman, ‘Is America No Longer Public Enemy No. 1 on Climate Change?’, E&E Reporting, 21 Nov. 2013, available at:

3 42 U.S.C. § 7401 et seq. (2012)

4 Most scholars and advocates take the view that comprehensive federal climate legislation, whether in the form of a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or something else, would be a superior method of regulating climate change both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Such legislation, however, remains politically untenable for the foreseeable future: see, e.g., Richardson, N., Fraas, A. & Burtraw, D., ‘Greenhouse Gas Regulation Under the Clean Air Act: Structure, Effects, and Implications of a Knowable Pathway’ (2011) 41 Environmental Law Reporter News & Analysis, pp. 10098–120,Google Scholar at 10098 (presenting a CAA approach to regulating GHG emissions as an inferior but realistic option).

5 See, e.g., US Submission on the 2015 Agreement, UNFCCC Party Submissions in Advance of the 19th Conference of the Parties (2013), at p. 1, available at: (‘The United States is committed to playing a leadership role on climate change … President Obama recently announced the US Climate Action Plan, which contains a broad range of actions to enhance US efforts toward our 2020 mitigation commitment and beyond’).

6 See, e.g., Brooks, David, ‘Shale Gas Revolution’, The New York Times, 3 Nov. 2011,Google Scholar at A31; Breakthrough Institute, ‘Where the Shale Gas Revolution Came From: Government's Role in the Development of Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale’, May 2012, available at:

7 President Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address’ 12 Feb. 2013, available at:

8 15th session of the COP-UNFCCC, 7–18 Dec. 2009, Copenhagen (Denmark), available at:

9 EPA, Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act, 74 Fed. Reg. 66,496 (15 Dec. 2009), see also:

10 See 2017 and Later Model Year Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, 77 Fed. Reg. 62,624 (15 Oct. 2012) (codified at 40 C.F.R. pts. 85, 86, 100), see also:

11 White House Press Release, ‘Obama Administration Finalizes Historic 54.5 MPG Fuel Efficiency Standards’, 28 Aug. 2012, available at:

12 75 Fed. Reg. 31,516 (3 June 2010). The Tailoring Rule set limits on the stationary sources required to comply with certain GHG regulations, so as to avoid absurd results and regulatory overburdening by bringing over 6 million small sources under the EPA’s permitting authority on the basis of carbon emissions alone: ibid., at 31,554; see also:

13 Commission Guidance Regarding Disclosure Related to Climate Change, 75 Fed. Reg. 6290 (8 Feb. 2010) (codified at 17 C.F.R. pts. 211, 231 and 241), see also:

14 Memorandum from Nancy H. Sutley, Chair, Council on Environmental Quality, to Heads of Federal Departments & Agencies on Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 18 Feb. 2010, available at:

15 Direct Final Rule Regarding Energy Conservation Standards for Residential Dishwashers, 77 Fed. Reg. 31,918 (30 May 2012), see also:

16 Executive Office of the President, ‘The President’s Climate Action Plan’, June 2013, available at:

17 EPA, ‘National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data’, available at: (last visited 11 Dec. 2013).

18 CAA § 111(b); codified at 42 U.S.C. § 7411(b) (2012).

19 Proposed Rule, Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, Rulemaking No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495 (20 Sept. 2013), 79 Fed. Reg. 1352 (8 Jan. 2014, available at:

20 See generally ‘Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, available at:; Klass, A.B. & Wilson, E.J., ‘Climate Change, Carbon Sequestration, and Property Rights’ (2010) 30(2) University of Illinois Law Review, pp. 363428.Google Scholar

21 The rule remains in proposal form for now. President Obama has directed the EPA to finalize this rule ‘in a timely fashion’: see Memorandum for the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards, 25 June 2013 (Memorandum for EPA), at p. 2, available at:

22 See generally Nash, J.R. & Revesz, R.L., ‘Grandfathering and Environmental Regulation: The Law and Economics of New Source Review’ (2007) 101 Northwestern University Law Review, pp. 1677–733,Google Scholar at 1681–96.

23 CAA § 111(d); codified at 42 U.S.C. § 7411(d) (2012).

24 Ibid.

25 See Memorandum for EPA, n. 21 above.

26 Energy Conservation Program: Energy Conservation Standards for Standby Mode and Off Mode for Microwave Ovens, 78 Fed. Reg. 36,316, 36,318 (17 June 2013) (to be codified at 10 C.F.R. pts. 429 and 430). Although announced in this rulemaking, an interagency working group actually formulated the updated SCC, and explained its methodology in a technical report dated May 2013: see Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, ‘Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866’, May 2013 (Technical Update), available at:

27 Technical Update, ibid., at p. 2.

28 Ibid., at p. 18.

29 See Executive Order No. 12,866, 58 Fed. Reg. 51,735 (4 Oct. 1993); see also Executive Order No. 13,563, 76 Fed. Reg. 3,821 (21 Jan. 2011) (Obama executive order ‘reaffirm[ing] the principles, structures, and definitions governing contemporary regulatory review that were established in Executive Order 12866 of September 30, 1993’).

30 For example, the microwave efficiency standards’ net benefits increased from $4.2 billion to $4.6 billion with the new social cost of carbon estimates applied: see Energy Conservation Standards for Microwave Ovens, 78 Fed. Reg. at 36,318.

31 See B. Lieberman, ‘Social Costs of Carbon: A Continuing Little-Told Story’, Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, 12 Sept. 2013, available at:

32 Office of Management and Budget, ‘Refining Estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon’, 1 Nov. 2011, available at:

33 See Executive Order No. 13,337, 69 Fed. Reg. 25,299 (30 Apr. 2004).

34 See, e.g., McKibben, B., ‘Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?’, Huffington Post, 28 Oct. 2013,Google Scholar available at: (calling the decision an ‘X-ray for a flagging presidency’).

35 Remarks by the President on Climate Change, Georgetown University, Washington, DC (US), 25 June 2013, available at:

36 See Austen, I., ‘In Canada, Pipeline Remarks Stir Analysis’, The New York Times, 26 June 2013Google Scholar (quoting environmentalists claiming that the remarks indicated that ‘the pipeline will be rejected’, while industry representatives interpreted the remarks as ‘a positive step in the process’), available at:

37 See Climate Action Plan, n. 16 above.

38 Ibid., at pp. 12–3.

39 Ibid., at p. 13.

40 Executive Order, Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, 1 Nov. 2013, available at:

41 See, e.g., Markell, D. & Ruhl, J.B., ‘An Empirical Assessment of Climate Change in the Courts: A New Jurisprudence or Business as Usual?’ (2012) 64 Florida Law Review, pp. 1586Google Scholar (collecting, categorizing, and analyzing trends in climate litigation).

42 Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, 684 F.3d 102, 113–4 (DC Cir., 2012) (holding the EPA’s Endangerment Finding to be neither arbitrary nor capricious and dismissing challenges to the Tailoring and Timing Rules for lack of standing), certiorari granted sub nom Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 134 S. Ct. 418 (15 Oct. 2013).

43 See n. 8 above.

44 Coalition for Responsible Regulation, n. 42 above, at 418.

45 Ibid.

46 See 42 U.S.C. § 7470 et seq. (2012); US Environmental Protection Agency, ‘Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) Basic Information’, available at:

47 Compare 42 U.S.C. § 7411 (New Source Performance Standards), with 42 U.S.C. Ch. 85, pt. C (PSD programme).

48 See Supreme Court of the United States, ‘October Term 2013, Schedule for Session Beginning February 24, 2014’, available at:

49 77 Fed. Reg. 9304, 9305-06 (16 Feb. 2012) (estimating annual social costs at $9.6 billion, with annual social benefits between $37 and $90 billion using a 3% discount rate).

50 Federal Implementation Plans: Interstate Transport of Fine Particulate Matter and Ozone and Correction of SIP Approvals, 76 Fed. Reg. 48,208 (8 Aug. 2011) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 51, 52, 72, 78, and 97).

51 See Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, Docket No. 13-1201 (DC Cir., oral argument heard 10 Dec. 2013).

52 See EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, Docket No. 12-1182 (US Supreme Court, oral argument heard 10 Dec. 2013), appealing 696 F.3d 7 (DC Cir., 2012).

53 See 42 U.S.C. § 7411(a) (defining ‘standards of performance’ as ‘a standard for emissions of air pollutants which reflects the degree of emission limitation achievable through the application of the best system of emission reduction which … has been adequately demonstrated’).

54 See ibid. § 7401(b)(1) (Congressional Declaration of Purpose).

55 See generally Kysar, D.A., ‘What Climate Change Can Do About Tort Law’ (2011) 41 Environmental Law, pp. 171,Google Scholar generally and at p. 2, n. 3 (describing the difficulties that climate litigants face in persuading courts to extend common law tort theories to climate damage and collecting scholarly analysis on these issues). See also, e.g., American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527, 2537 (2011) (rejecting a public nuisance claim); Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 696 F.3d 849, 853–4 (9th Cir., 2012) (rejecting a public nuisance claim), certiorari denied, 133 S. Ct. 2390 (2013); U.S. Legal Actions, Our Children’s Trust, available at: (collecting state and federal lawsuits sponsored by this organization to force regulation of carbon emissions under the public trust doctrine – none of which have yet been successful).

56 Cf. American Electric Power Co., ibid., at 2537 (finding any potential federal common law claim for abatement of GHG emissions displaced by federal legislation authorizing the EPA to regulate these emissions).

57 Kivalina, n. 55 above, at 853–54.

58 Ibid., at 858.

59 See Comer v. Murphy Oil, 718 F.3d 460 (5th Cir., 2013).

60 See American Electric Power Co., n. 55 above, at 2540 (‘None of the parties have briefed preemption or otherwise addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration…’); see also Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 734 F.3d 188, 197 (3d Cir., 2013) (holding that ‘the Clean Air Act does not preempt state common law claims based on the law of the state where the source of the pollution is located’, and remanding for further proceedings). But see North Carolina v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 615 F.3d 291, 310 (4th Cir., 2010) (holding that plants could not be public nuisances under the law of their state when in compliance with state and federal air regulations).

61 732 F.3d 1131 (9th Cir., 2013). The Bellon plaintiffs have petitioned for en banc review: see Docket No. 12-35323 (9th Cir., en banc briefing filed 3 Dec. 2013). A petition for certiorari is also likely.

62 Ibid., at 1143.

63 549 U.S. 497, 521 (2007).

64 Docket No. 12-5300, slip op. (DC Cir., decided 24 Dec. 2013).

65 Ibid., at 11–12.

66 See Kane, P., ‘Reid, Democrats Trigger “Nuclear” Option; Eliminate Most Filibusters on Nominees’, The Washington Post, 21 Nov. 2013,Google Scholar available at:

67 See 42 U.S.C. § 7607(b).

68 See n. 6 above.

69 See US Energy Information Administration, ‘Annual Energy Outlook’ (2013), at p. 76, available at:

70 See EPA, ‘Natural Gas’, available at: However, the production of natural gas also emits GHGs – in particular, the potent GHG methane – in quantities that are currently the topic of much scientific debate: see, e.g., Tollefson, J., ‘Methane Leaks Erode Green Credentials of Natural Gas’ (2013) 493(7430) Nature, p. 12.Google Scholar

71 See US Energy Information Administration, n. 69 above, at p. 3 (‘Although coal is expected to continue its important role in U.S. electricity generation, there are many uncertainties that could affect future outcomes. Chief among them are the relationship between coal and natural gas prices and the potential for policies aimed at reducing [GHG] emissions’).

72 See Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, available at:; P.J. Hibbard et al., ‘The Economic Impacts of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on Ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States’, Analysis Group, 15 Nov. 2011, at p. 24, available at:

73 See Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 19258 (9th Cir., 18 Sept. 2013).

74 See Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, ‘RPS Data Spreadsheet’, Mar. 2013, available at:; American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, ‘Energy Efficiency Resource Standards’, available at:

75 Many scholars have devoted attention to the important roles that states and cities play in US climate policy: see, e.g., Stewart, R.B., ‘States and Cities as Actors in Global Climate Regulation: Unitary vs. Plural Architectures’ (2008) 50 Arizona Law Review, pp. 681707Google Scholar (arguing that state efforts can and should persist, even if a robust federal or international climate regime is adopted); Osofsky, H., ‘Diagonal Federalism and Climate Change: Implications for the Obama Administration’ (2011) 62 Alabama Law Review, pp. 237303Google Scholar (discussing, inter alia, the vertical interplay among local, state, and federal climate regulation); Pursley, G.B. & Wiseman, H.J., ‘Local Energy’ (2011) 60 Emory Law Journal, pp. 877959Google Scholar(charting the role of local governments in promoting the transition to clean energy); Powers, M., ‘United States Municipal Climate Plans: What Role Will Cities Play in Climate Change Mitigation?’, in Richardson, B.J. (ed), Local Climate Change Law: Environmental Regulation in Cities and Other Localities (IUCN Academy of Environmental Law, 2012), pp.134–63.Google Scholar

76 See, e.g., Rabe, B. & Borick, C., Continued Rebound in American Belief in Climate Change: Spring 2012 NSAPOCC Findings (Brookings Institute, 2012),Google Scholar at p. 2 (finding a ‘rebound in public belief in evidence of global warming’ and ‘evidence that Americans are linking weather events and experiences to their views on the existence of climate change’).

77 N.D. Israel, ‘Inaction on Climate Change: The Cost to Taxpayers’, Ceres, Oct. 2013 (internal citation omitted), at p. 7, available at:

78 Ibid., at p. 5.

79 Hernandez, R., ‘Bloomberg Backs Obama, Citing Fallout From Storm’, The New York Times, 1 Nov. 2012,Google Scholar available at:

80 See Barrett, P.M., ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid’, Bloomberg Businessweek, 1 Nov. 2012,Google Scholar available at:

81 Climate Action Plan, n. 16 above, at p. 5.

82 PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, ‘Trends in Global CO2 Emissions 2012 Report’, European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2012, at p. 6, available at:

83 See, e.g., Byrd-Hagel Resolution, S. Res. 98, 25 July 1997 (refusing to ratify any climate change agreement that required binding cuts by the US but not by developing countries); Address by H.E. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, Copenhagen (Denmark), 18 Dec. 2009 (‘the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” represents the core and bedrock of international cooperation on climate change and must never be compromised’).

84 US Department of State, ‘Report of the US-China Climate Change Working Group to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue’, Special Envoy for Climate Change, Washington, DC (US), 10 July 2013, available at:

85 White House Press Release, ‘United States and China Agree to Work Together on Phase Down of HFCs’, 8 June 2013, available at:

86 Montreal (Canada), 16 Sept. 1987, in force 1 Jan. 1989, available at:

87 In contrast to its work on mitigation targets, the US does not appear to have been particularly constructive during recent negotiations on the issues of climate finance or ‘loss and damage’.

88 See, e.g., Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, ‘Outcomes of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Warsaw’, Nov. 2013, at p. 1, available at:

89 Ibid., at p. 2.

90 Ibid. (reporting that the US facilitated this compromise); see also UNFCCC, Decision --/CP.19, ‘Further Advancing the Durban Platform’, advance unedited version, Dec. 2013 (inviting ‘all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions … [and] to communicate them well in advance of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties’).

91 US Department of State, ‘Draft 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report, Biennial Report’, at p. 3, available at:

92 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Emissions Gap Report 2013 (UNEP, 2013), available at:

93 Hansen, J. et al. ., ‘Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature’ (3 Dec. 2013) 8(12) PLoS ONE, p. e81648.Google Scholar