Environmental and climate advocacy groups host the Crude Awakening March on May 11, 2010.Chris Eichler/Flickr.com

It’s been 114 days since President Barack Obama promised on the night of his re-election to protect future generations from – in his words – “the destructive power of a warming planet.” It’s been 38 days since he renewed and expanded on that promise on inauguration day, 16 days since he told Congress straight up in his State of the Union address: Act on climate change or I will.

But when it comes to spelling out the actions Obama intends to take on climate change, exactly how he intends to use his executive power, it’s been a very slow reveal.

The White House energy and climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, failed during a talk at a Washington think tank this week to provide specifics on the kinds of actions – or the time frame – Obama has in mind for dealing with what he has repeatedly described as an urgent problem.

If anything, Zichal, like other White House officials pressed for details of the president’s climate strategy, moved to squash expectations raised by those very same speeches that Obama would indeed take ambitious action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

Zichal, when pressed on the time line of Obama’s State of the Union ultimatum, seemed to suggest the president might be willing to sit out the two years of this newly elected Congress before making good on his threat to use his executive powers.

Environmental groups have been urging Obama to draft new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Electric power plants produce about 40 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions; they are the leading driver of climate change in the country.

Campaigners say Obama could cut those power plant emissions by 25 percent by the end of the decade without big price spikes for consumers, by directing the Environmental Protection Agency to limit those emissions under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. That would go a long way to fulfilling Obama’s first term promise to cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

The environmental groups point out Obama also has a legal obligation to act. The Supreme Court ruled six years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency had a duty to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The EPA proposed new rules last year for new power plants.

But Zichal in her talk to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, damped down anticipation the EPA would move on existing coal-fired power plants any time soon. “We can’t put the cart before the horse,” she said.

“The EPA is finalizing the standards of new coal-fired power plants. We received more than 2 million comments on that proposal, and the agency is in the process of assessing those comments.”

It’s possible, as some suggested, that this was a very clever feint by Zichal to reassure the electricity industry and Republicans in Congress before the administration fills out its second-term Cabinet.

The White House would naturally want to avoid an all-out fight to defeat Obama’s nominee to be the next administrator of the EPA. The current favorite appears to be Gina McCarthy, an assistant administrator.

And there have been reports that the White House has been consulting widely with environmental groups since Obama’s re-election to come up with a clear climate strategy.

But Zichal seemed intent on downplaying the possibility Obama would use the most powerful instrument at his disposal: the EPA.

“It would be wrong to fall into the trap that one tool is going to get us to the 17 percent target or get us all the way where we need to be,” she said.

“In these days in Washington it is thought that the EPA and its authority is a bright shining object, but it is also important that we continue to address and move forward many of the initiatives that we already started in the first term,” Zichal said. These included the new fuel efficiency standards for cars and funding for renewable sources of energy, she went on.

“This administration as a whole has demonstrated time and time again its ability to think creatively about our existing authorities and use them. We have done some very big bold things with the Clean Air Act, a lot of things people didn’t think would be possible,” Zichal said.

What’s not clear however is what Obama will do next – or whether he will expand the bold rhetoric of his recent speeches on climate change into bold action.

A transformation of the United States’ electricity generation is already under way, with coal-fired power plants shutting down or replaced by cheaper, and relatively cleaner, natural gas. As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it in a speech to an energy summit near Washington this week: “Coal is a dead man walking.”

With the natural gas boom, with rising public concern about drought and extreme storms, this could be Obama’s moment to act on climate change. But only if the White House is ready to take advantage of it.

 This story is courtesy of The Guardian as part of Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration among The Atlantic, CIR, Grist, The Guardian, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired & PBS.

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Suzanne Goldenberg

Suzanne Goldenberg is the US environment correspondent of the Guardian and is based in Washington DC. She has won several awards for her work in the Middle East, and in 2003 covered the US invasion of Iraq from Baghdad. She is author of Madam President, about Hillary Clinton's historic run for White House.