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Obama has many independent options to move U.S. on clean energy, climate

Cracking down on coal and killing the Keystone XL pipeline project may top the agendas of some environmental groups, but these are hardly the only options available to the White House.

In spite of opposition from Congress to green energy initiatives, there are many strategies President Obama can pursue on his own.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

It will be some time, and perhaps not until his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, that we really know how Barack Obama intends to take up the challenge of climate change in his second term.

But his words on the subject last Monday were stirring, at least to my ear. By making this issue the strongest single emphasis of his second inaugural address, the president has moved it higher in the public conversation as well:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.

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Given the national commentariat’s eagerness to guess the details of what Obama might do, and the interest of big environmental groups in having their preferences quoted on this point, we’ve had a few days of discouraging surmise along these general lines:

  • Because Congressional Republicans and some Democrats remain hostile to a serious national program of forcing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, there is no chance of cap-and-trade legislation nor carbon taxation any time soon.
  • Acting without Congress, Obama’s best options for meaningful administrative action lie in forcing stricter regulation of coal-burning power plants and in killing the Keystone XL pipeline project that would carry Canadian tar-sands oil to U.S. refineries.
  • But even in these areas, Congressional opposition could prove insurmountable. A typical passage of analysis, from the National Journal’s Coral Davenport, under the heading “How Obama Can Tackle Climate Change Without Congress”:

Under the terms of a Supreme Court ruling and the nation’s clean-air laws, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to issue a regulation that would force existing industrial polluters, such as coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, to slash their emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The rule could have a profound environmental impact by reducing the nation’s global-warming pollutants by up to 20 percent.

The new limits will also ignite immediate and raging political opposition from the nation’s most powerful fossil-fuel interests and likely lead to the shutdown of many of the dirtiest coal plants, possibly costing jobs in the process. It will also be met with an avalanche of efforts by industry and lawmakers to overturn it, either in Congress or in the courts. … 

Environmental groups hope the State of the Union address will offer a clear signal on what concrete steps Obama intends to take next. …  

They may have to remain patient. EPA is not likely to offer such an explosive proposal until after budget and debt-ceiling standoffs are resolved, and the White House would ideally like to see the economy in better shape before introducing the most restrictive regulation on the energy industry to date.

Cracking down on coal and killing Keystone may top the agendas of some, though not all, environmental groups but these are hardly the only options available to the White House. Dip a little deeper in this week’s river of news and you can find additional, intriguing possibilities:

Using procurement policies, especially at the Pentagon, to stimulate production and sales of cleaner technologies. Luke Johnson, writing at Huffington Post, points out that “if the government makes massive investments, the price for these goods would go down as they go to market.” 

Johnson quotes Christian Parenti, author of an influential piece for The Nation a couple of years back, as saying these purchases are the “fastest, simplest way” to close the price gap between fossil fuels and renewable, and could be especially important in promoting electric vehicles and efficiency retrofits of commercial buildings. (Parenti’s Nation article, “The Big Green Buy,” is here.) 

Directing EPA to crack down on methane leaks associated with natural gas and oil production. According to the Washington Post, “The agency has [already] proposed new rules on toxic air pollution from natural-gas fracking — rules that could help curb methane leaks as well. But that still leaves oil wells, leaky gas pipelines, and other bits of natural-gas infrastructure untouched. …

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“Leaking methane can often be captured and resold at a profit, which means that industry and environmentalists might be able to find common ground here.” The amounts are not trivial; in North Dakota’s oil patch alone, oil and gas companies are throwing away $110 million a year in gas that is flared or simply released to the atmosphere.

Other White House options mentioned more or less in passing this week include promotion of projects that generate both heat and electric power, phasing out of various subsidies for fossil-fuel production, raising the fuel economy of over-the-road trucks and other large vehicles, and adopting a more cautious approach to offshore oil leasing in the Arctic.

But for big-picture thinking it would be hard to top a piece by Matthew Stepp, a blogger at Forbes Magazine, who said Obama’s greatest opportunity lies in two moves that can “make clean energy innovation the guiding north star of our climate policy choices.”

First, the President should tie the shale natural gas boom to building the clean energy future by creating a dedicated tax on natural gas and oil drilling that is earmarked for a clean energy innovation trust fund. Shale gas benefited from decades of public investments in innovation and clean energy is no different, but one of the starkest comparisons between the two is that shale gas innovation received dedicated funding through a rate-payer surcharge. …

The tax should be enough to leverage doubling the federal clean energy innovation budget – which currently stands at roughly $14 billion – and would include tripling investments in clean energy research, development, and demonstration.

 Second, the President should lead the charge for reorganizing the U.S. Department of Energy  and reforming the National Labs system to spur clean energy innovation and enhance implementation of technologies from research to market…..

These innovation proposals aren’t as splashy as a new EPA regulation, but they’re aimed at the central problem: We need better and cheaper clean-energy technologies that provide consumers everywhere an economical alternative.