When President Obama referred to "the destructive power of a warming planet" in his victory speech Tuesday night, the words caught Jonathan Foley by surprise.

It wasn't because Foley, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, shares the view that Obama has shrunk from the issue of climate change during his first term.

Rather, Foley said that Obama has made remarkable progress on climate change initiatives, but that with the economy under a brighter political spotlight, "he couldn't talk about it."

"I hope it frees his hand to talk about the issue more," Foley said of Obama's election to a second and final term, which could reduce the restrictions that can come with eyeing re-election. "I think he sent the environmental community a big message. Maybe now that the election is over with, he can broaden the palette of issues."

This past year, Obama has overseen a mandate to increase the average gas mileage of new cars and light trucks sold in the United States to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. It's currently 29 mpg. That is "the biggest single step the U.S. has taken to date to reduce carbon pollution," said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based renewable energy advocacy group.

Hamilton said pending standards that would set limits on carbon emissions from new coal plants -- even though few are being built -- are another significant step by the Obama administration.

With a gain of two Democratic seats in the U.S. Senate, and wins by climate-sensitive candidates including Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Obama may find more interest in legislation focusing on links between carbon emissions and threats to the economy and public health, as well as to expensive damages from severe storms, Hamilton added. However, he may also find opposition in the House, whose Republican majority just before the election recess passed a bill called the "Stop the War on Coal Act" aimed at blocking the coal-plant emissions standards. Voters re-elected a Republican House majority Tuesday.

Foley said Obama "deserves a pat on the back" for tying the auto industry bailout to the high fuel-efficiency standards. His strategy for the next four years, in the face of likely Republican opposition, Foley said, will probably involve relatively small rule-making through agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than broad, high-profile efforts such as the failed bid to establish a cap-and-trade market for carbon emissions.

"A thousand little initiatives in government that add up: Maybe that's the way to get things done," Foley said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646