WASHINGTON - Barack Obama may be forced to order a two-year delay in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action on climate change to try to avoid a complete government shutdown, an environmental conference has been warned.
President Obama faces the prospect of a government shutdown by 4 March, with a funding gap leading to federal employees being sent home and government services temporarily closing down, unless he can reach a deal with Congress Republicans who are demanding a crippling $61bn (£38bn) in budget cuts.
The Republican plan would destroy Obama's capacity to pursue his green agenda, cutting the budget of the EPA by 30%, and stripping funds for projects he has championed such as clean energy research and high-speed rail.
Obama may be forced to sacrifice the EPA's efforts to take the first steps this year towards regulating greenhouse gas emissions if it means he can continue funding the federal government for the next seven months.
"If I was predicting, I would say that he might sign a delay provision, to delay the EPA effort for two years or something like that. It probably depends on the particular circumstances," Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, told a conference at the Georgetown Climate Centre.
"I would bet that if it was a delay, and it was part of a money bill that was really important, he would sign it," she said.
The Obama administration committed to cut emissions by 17% from 2005 levels at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The EPA took the first steps to monitoring greenhouse gas emissions on 1 January 2011.
The White House has said repeatedly that it would veto isolated measures to strip the EPA of its legal authority and funds to act on climate change.
But officials have pointedly not offered the same assurances on whether the White House would be willing to risk a shutdown of the entire federal government to protect the agency and its green agenda.
Some have suggested that a freeze on the EPA, is among the least damaging options available to the adminstration, which is facing a wholesale assault on Obama's green-tinged "win the future" agenda.
Buried among the $61bn in Republican budget cuts are a series of measures that would strip the overall budget of the EPA by 30%.
The cuts are aimed at restricting the EPA's legal authority and financial capacity to act on climate change, but they would also stop the agency from regulating broader concerns such as mountaintop mining removal and coal ash.
Bob Perciasepe, the deputy head of the EPA, called the cuts "reckless", and suggested they were motivated by Republicans' opposition to government regulation.
"They are not concerned so much with fiscal policy but really with disabling part of the EPA's capacity to do its job," he told the Georgetown climate conference.
The Republican bill would specifically bar the Obama administration from funding programmes regulating greenhouse gas emissions, or connected to climate science and international negotiations for a deal to end global warming.
It cuts funds for the post of White House climate adviser, Carol Browner, who has announced her resignation, and the State Department climate envoy, Todd Stern. It de-funds the UN climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the UN body for climate talks, the UNFCCC.
The White House and Democrats in Congress have called the proposals extreme.