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Obama Aims to Sidestep Congress With New Initiatives to Reduce Carbon Emissions

A US coal-burning plant.
Michael Williamson | The Washington Post | Getty Images
A US coal-burning plant.

President Barack Obama will direct his administration on Tuesday to begin addressing the issue of climate change with executive branch actions, sidestepping a Congress that has displayed little appetite for addressing the issue.

Among a range of initiatives aimed at cutting carbon emissions both at home and internationally, the president will announce a directive for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon emission standards for both new and existing power plants.

The speech he will deliver at Georgetown University is being billed as a major policy address by the White House on one of the top priorities of his second term. And the administration made it clear they are more than willing to do what they can to bypass Congress.

"I think, going back to the president's words in the State of the Union, he made it very clear that his preference would be for Congress to act, and move comprehensive energy and climate legislation forward," a senior administration official said in a conference call previewing the speech, explaining that Obama's actions rely on existing executive authority. "At this point, the president is prepared to act."

(Read More: New US Climate Strategy Coming Within Weeks: Obama Advisor)

But that's not to say his actions will lack for controversy. His proposals are certain to engender stiff resistance from Republicans in Congress and the broader business community.

"I think this is absolutely crazy," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last Thursday in anticipation of Obama's announcement. "Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking, 'Where are the jobs?'"

Perhaps no proposal of Obama's is more controversial than his anticipated directive to the EPA. Proponents of such a rule argue that the move is essential to addressing the underlying causes of climate change; critics charge that these new rules would only result in higher energy prices for consumers, amounting to a de-facto tax on consumers.

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The president's forthcoming climate actions don't stop at the EPA, however. Obama is also set to outline a series of initiatives that span across the government, all with the goal of stemming the production of greenhouse gases.

"The president believes we have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that's not polluted," said a senior administration official. "It's true that no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, but it's important to prepare."

Internationally, the president will call for an end to U.S. financing of new coal plants abroad that lack filters or carbon-capture technology. (An exception would be made for developing countries in which there is little alternative.) Obama will also seek a new international agreement in 2015 with a goal of establishing international emissions agreements past 2020. On a global level, Obama will also push for free-trade agreements supporting environmentally friendly goods and services.

Domestically, Obama will also announce steps to boost fuel-efficiency standards for heavy vehicles in the United States after 2018. And the president will look to improve the government's energy efficiency, for instance by requiring federal agencies to issue reports on the effect of climate change on key sectors of the economy. Obama will also outline a climate data initiative, and direct new federal projects meet standards to withstand storm or flood risk—a proposal that seems like a direct outgrowth of the government's experience in dealing with the aftermath of 2012's Hurricane Sandy and its effect on the New York and New Jersey area.

(Read More: Global Carbon Emissions Hit Record High in 2012)

Obama's speech will also be noteworthy for what it lacks: any new declaration regarding the status of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between the United States and Canada. Republicans have forcefully pushed Obama to approve construction of the pipeline, which they argue would spur job growth in the U.S. And even some of the administration's allies in organized labor have endorsed the project, prompting speculation within Washington that Obama could use approval of the project to buy himself political breathing room on some of his other initiatives.

But a senior administration official told reporters that the State Department-led review of the latest pipeline proposal was not yet complete, making any new pronouncement by Obama unlikely.

"The bottom line is that this proposal is not yet ready for a decision," the official told reporters.

Taken together, Obama's speech on Tuesday marks some of the most direct actions taken by his administration to address climate change, especially in the face of congressional inaction.

"This is a serious challenge, but it's one uniquely suited to America's strengths," Obama said in a video released over the weekend previewing his speech.

(Watch: American Electric Power CEO: Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions)

The issue of climate change is one Obama has spoken about since well before he was elected president. But the most significant piece of climate legislation in decades—the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade climate bill – stalled in Congress after it narrowly won passage in the heavily Democratic House of Representatives in 2009, six months into Obama's first term. The legislation encountered bipartisan resistance in the Senate, where it subsequently died.

By Michael O'Brien of NBC News

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