President Barack Obama
The White House

Based on conversations with senior White House officials this week, we reported that the president’s State of the Union threat to act unilaterally on climate change didn’t appear to have any force behind it. The largest weapon Obama has to that effect is the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants — something that officials suggested isn’t in the works.

Yesterday, Politico asked the president directly what he’s planning to do about climate change:

Obama said in his State of the Union address that he is prepared to take action if Congress doesn’t act, but he didn’t detail what that action might look like. He hinted during the chat Thursday that it could resemble what his administration did to require higher fuel efficiency standards in automobiles.

“The same steps that we took with respect to energy efficiency on cars, we can take on buildings, we can take on appliances, we can make sure that new power plants that are being built are more efficient than the old ones, and we can continue to put research and our support behind clean energy that is going to continue to help us transition away from dirtier fuels,” he said.

As we noted on Wednesday, the administration’s action to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars was a good one that will have a significant effect on greenhouse-gas and particulate pollution. But it is also a very different political fight than the one over emissions from existing power plants, and far less important.

In other words: Obama himself confirms that he’s not prepared to take drastic action in the absence of Congress doing anything. His threat, as we suggested two days ago, is empty.