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Changes for Obama climate goals do not need congressional OK: report

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during his his year-end news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, December 20, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during his his year-end news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, December 20, 2013

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of business leaders, energy experts and former government leaders believes that the Obama administration could tackle climate change by taking measures that do not require congressional approval, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The 207-page report contained about 200 recommendations on how President Barack Obama can use executive authority to advance the climate change action plan he announced in June. It was released by former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who briefed U.S. cabinet officials and senior policy staff focused on energy and climate policy last week.

The recommendations focus on five areas: doubling energy efficiency; financing renewable energy; producing natural gas more responsibly; developing alternative fuels and vehicles; and helping utilities adapt to the country's changed energy landscape.

They highlight measures that every federal agency can take, said Heather Zichal, a former energy and climate policy adviser to Obama who helped coordinate the report.

"The president is going to put pressure on his agencies to identify areas of opportunity" to help the country meet its goal of slashing carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, said Zichal, who left the White House in late 2013.

The report was inspired by a meeting last March between Obama and 14 corporate and private sector leaders to discuss ideas to reshape energy policy. It was produced by the Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) at Colorado State University, with contributions from more than 100 business leaders, academics, energy experts and government leaders.

One of the recommendations called on federal agencies to work with electric utilities and regulators across the country to update regulations that have created barriers for new clean energy technologies.

"As one utility executive put it, today's new energy technologies are 10 years ahead of utilities in the United States, and utilities are 10 years ahead of regulations," Ritter said.

Another idea was for the Internal Revenue Service to reform the tax code to level the playing field for private investors who want to bankroll clean energy technologies.

Zichal said proposals like a bipartisan bill introduced last year called the Master Limited Partnership Parity Act and Real Estate Investment Trusts could offer the same tax breaks that support fossil fuel projects to the renewable energy industry.

The report also calls for a federal process to develop methods to account for the full costs of various energy choices, including healthcare costs associated with air pollution.

By calculating those costs, the administration would have more information and choices to develop a "best of the above" energy strategy. That's in contrast to the "all of the above" strategy often cited by the administration.

That strategy uses cost assumptions and acknowledges the need for the continued use of fossil fuel energy sources while calling for a ratcheting down in carbon emissions.

"All of the above" has come under criticism, most recently by several leading U.S. environmental groups that sent a letter last week to new White House energy adviser John Podesta.

In a reply to the groups, Podesta outlined some of the administration's accomplishments on the environment, including new vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, in light of tough political opposition from Republicans in Congress.

He noted their attempts to defund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or to weaken its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and said he had expected to see more support for the administration's work from the groups.

"Given this context, I was surprised that you chose to send your January 16 letter to President Obama," Podesta wrote in his reply.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Ros Krasny and Amanda Kwan)

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