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New Climate Policy; EPA Administrator Nomination Stalled; Commerce Secretary Confirmed; Supreme Court Rules on Affirmative Action

June 28, 2013

Obama Announces Climate Policy; EPA Administrator Nomination Stalled

On June 25, President Obama gave a major address at Georgetown University to announce his Administration’s plans on climate policy, asserting, “Science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind.”

Mr. Obama made efforts during his first term to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation but was stymied by push back from various members of Congress and industry leaders.  Given these failures and the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, the President made a decision to use executive powers to enact as many policy changes as possible.  Some of the initiatives he announced include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is directed to work with states, industry, and other stakeholders to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.
  • The Department of the Interior is directed to permit enough renewables project (such as wind and solar) on public lands by 2020 to power more than 6 million homes.
  • The President has set a goal to reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 – more than half of the annual carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector – through efficiency standards set over the course of the Administration for appliances and federal buildings.

While many Congressional Democrats praised the President for his leadership on climate issues following the speech, some Democrats – along with many Republicans – criticized the new initiatives.  Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) called the policies “irresponsible” and said that the initiatives will be a “killer of jobs.”  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the President’s efforts amounted to a “war on American energy” and asserted that “energy is the gateway to prosperity.”  Perhaps anticipating a response of this nature, the President had said during his speech that he doesn’t “have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge (climate change) is real.  We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

Rhetoric aside, the Senate has yet to act on the President’s nomination of Gina McCarthy to serve as EPA Administrator and the Congressional reaction to the new policies could make it difficult for McCarthy to win confirmation.     

Pritzker Confirmed as Commerce Secretary   

The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Chicago business executive Penny Pritzker to serve as U.S. Secretary of Commerce and she was sworn in on June 26.

The Senate vote in favor of the nominee was an overwhelming 97-1 despite speculation in the days after the nomination was first made that Pritzker might face opposition for having used offshore tax havens; for substantially understating her income on required financial disclosure forms; and because of labor union attacks on various management practices of the Hyatt hotel chain, of which Pritzker is an heiress.   

Pritzker is the first full Commerce Secretary to serve in over a year.  The job had been held on an acting basis from June 11, 2012 – June 25, 2013 by Department officials Rebecca Blank and Cameron Kerry (Secretary of State John Kerry’s younger brother) after former Secretary John Bryson left the job unexpectedly last year due to health reasons.  Pritzker is President Obama’s third Commerce Secretary (after Gary Locke and Bryson). 

The Commerce post is a critical one for geographers.  The Department includes both the Census Bureau and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Decision Could Eventually End Affirmative Action in Admissions

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that did not definitively answer the question as to whether and/or how colleges and universities may continue to use race as a factor in admissions decisions.  But several legal analysts believe the ruling will make it much-more difficult for institutions to justify the use of race in their admissions processes and could pave the way for a future high court ruling formally barring race as a factor in admissions.

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, was brought by Abigail Fisher, who filed suit against the University in 2008 out of the belief that she was denied entry in favor of a minority applicant.  The guiding principle on the use of race in admissions was set in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that institutions often have a compelling interest in promoting class diversity and can have an admissions process that may favor underrepresented minority groups, as long as a strict quota system is not employed.

The District and Appeals Courts that heard the Fisher case ruled in favor of the University in deference to Grutter, but in a 7-1 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself from the case because of her work on these issues as the Obama Administration’s Solicitor General), the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals level and ordered the Fifth Circuit to apply a standard of strict scrutiny to their review of the University’s admissions policies. 

While the ruling does not immediately undermine the standard set in Grutter, many legal analysts and Supreme Court observers were quick to point out that decision may be a precursor to an eventual reconsideration of the case that reverses Grutter and ends race-based affirmative action in college admissions.    

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John Wertman

 

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