By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Last month, Washington's top environment advocate went to the Cleveland Clinic to talk about how President Barack Obama's landmark efforts to crack down on power-plant carbon emissions would ease a range of respiratory illnesses.
Speaking separately to historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta in April, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy also framed proposed new rules in terms of social justice, as poor black communities are disproportionately affected by air pollution.
The meetings, and hundreds more like them over the past year, mark an unprecedented campaign by the White House and the EPA to win broad public and state backing for rules expected to come June 2 to limit for the first time carbon emissions from power plants, which are the biggest source of greenhouse gases.
Both the message and the method reflect a conscious effort to avoid the problems that two years ago nearly sank Obama's health care reform, another contentious policy milestone that will become an indelible part of his legacy, according to officials and sources familiar with the process.
The proposed curbs will form the cornerstone of Obama’s climate action plan, a multi-layered blueprint for fighting global warming unveiled a year ago. The plan is critical to fulfilling U.S. commitments to reduce emissions agreed to at an international forum in Copenhagen in 2009.
It is also key to carving out a legacy for Obama's second term, after the administration was frustrated in its efforts to make progress on other goals such as immigration reform and gun control. Taking strong steps to fight climate change could be the biggest achievement of the last two years of his presidency, administration officials say.
Agency officials have met with over 3,300 people and 300 groups, listening to concerns and complaints from teamsters, utility executives, tribal leaders and several governors about the proposal.
For example, she sought in February to reassure state officials in North Dakota that the change won't impede the state's recent surge in energy production. In Orlando last week, the message for small business owners was that environmental stewardship doesn't diminish economic growth.
"This is such an important part of the president's plan, that we just thought it was appropriate to have an extraordinary level of engagement even before the proposed rule stage," Dan Utech, special assistant to the president for energy and climate change, told Reuters in an interview.
By engaging early and often with detractors and supporters alike, with messages tailored to each, the team led by McCarthy and senior White House adviser John Podesta is seeking to spin more effectively than it did with the troubled Affordable Care Act rollout.
They hope to stay a step ahead of critics by getting feedback up front, rather than waiting until provisional new rules are published, as the EPA normally does. They aim to make the need for the new rules tangible to Americans by linking them to public health and safety. The broader goal of tempering climate change is seen as a lower priority for many voters.
Ahead of November elections in which Democrats fear losing control of the Senate, Obama hopes to stave off inevitable accusations that he has launched a war on coal that would force the closure of plants and a loss of American jobs.
“I think the goal for the administration is to preserve the ability to have a conversation and don’t have everyone coming out of the back screaming. That will check an important political box,” says Heather Zichal, who was Obama's special adviser on energy and climate until last November.
The regulations, drafted under the rarely-used section 111d of the Clean Air Act, will curb the amount of carbon dioxide the country’s power plants spew out and give each state a year to devise a tailored plan for how it will meet the new standards.
The White House has been preparing Americans for the sweeping new rules with an increasingly urgent messaging campaign about the seriousness of climate change.
Earlier this month the White House released a report, the National Climate Assessment, that said effects of global warming had “moved firmly into the present” and had touched every corner of the country. It offered a backdrop of climate catastrophe to justify the need for urgent limits on the power sector.
"Climate change is not just about polar bears, although we all love polar bears...It's about all of us," McCarthy said on a visit to Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida last week, reported by local media.
She explained to students how Florida and other state governments will play a major role in carrying out the rules and had them perform an experiment in which clean white tube socks were barely soiled when placed on tailpipes of cars and busses built after EPA efficiency standards became effective in 2010.
The mood was more combative a month earlier at Bismarck State College in North Dakota, when EPA's Chief Counsel Joe Goffman spoke to industry and state officials, including the state's Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple.
"We cannot jump to a much higher standard for (carbon dioxide) overnight. It simply is not possible, it's not attainable, and we will fight that with every tool that we have available," said Dalrymple said, according to local WDAZ television.
Goffman tried to assure the crowd that the EPA would ensure its rules offered enough "flexibility" for states to achieve their targets.
The outreach may do little to prevent corporate groups and energy companies from launching legal and lobbying efforts to fight back at rules they fear may heap more costs on to the coal industry and remove 20 percent of the country’s coal-fired electricity from the grid, leaving it vulnerable to shortages.
Some of that resistance is taking a form similar to efforts that nearly derailed Obamacare, with state legislatures and some governors aiming to prevent implementation of the regulation.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of state lawmakers that promotes limited government and gets funding from companies such as Koch Industries [KCHIN.UL] and Peabody Energy, has targeted a dozen state legislatures, including Kentucky and Ohio, to prevent certain states from implementing EPA carbon rules.
“In trying to block federal policy, ALEC has a history - on behalf of its corporate funders - of deliberately establishing legal conflicts to force the issue into federal courts. That is precisely what they did with the ACA,” Nick Surgey, research director of Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a group that monitors ALEC’s activities.
ALEC did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Obama's team said it will counter inevitable attacks.
"We're going to be out there aggressively with our positive vision on this, as well as pushing back hard and setting the record straight with respect to some of the attacks that we expect to get from the other side," said Utech.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; editing by Jonathan Leff, Caren Bohan and Alden Bentley)