President Barack Obama left no doubt Monday that his administration will move aggressively to address “long overdue” energy and environmental issues and, in a pointed reversal of U.S. policy under George W. Bush, he said that “ideology will no longer trump sound science.”
He said carbon emissions must be reduced to stem the ill effects of climate change, and oil consumption must be reduced to protect national and economic security from over-reliance on oil imports. Half of U.S. oil is imported.
Obama’s new policy direction will have immediate impact on two front-burner issues in Minnesota:
• The Big Stone II Power Plant in South Dakota on Minnesota’s western border. It would add 4.5 million tons of carbon at a time when the state is struggling to reduce greenhouse gases. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put a hold on air-quality permits issued by South Dakota for the plant; that action, coupled with Obama’s carbon-reduction drive, could derail plans for the $1.5 billion 550-megawatt electric generator.
• The so-called Clean Cars proposal that nearly passed the Legislature last year. The Obama announcement will help move it along this year in the face of aggressive opposition by the auto and ethanol industries. The bill would reduce carbon emissions in passenger vehicles, a first-ever attempt to regulate carbon from cars and trucks, initiated by California and, now, 13 other states.
‘A whole new day’
For environment and energy policy “it’s a whole new day,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. She’s the lead author of the Clean Cars bill and said Obama’s action to reverse a years-long EPA denial of a waiver for California to regulate carbon “paves the way for the Minnesota Legislature and the governor to adopt this money-saving standard.”
Hortman said she expects that Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s reticence on the legislation may soften now that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has announced that he’s backing a similar measure for his state. Like Pawlenty, Crist is often mentioned as a 2012 Republican presidential contender; the thinking goes that Pawlenty won’t want a rival to gain ground on green issues that are expected to dominate the next four years.
The Obama announcement on Monday amounted to a reversal of the Bush administration’s policy on anything related to climate change. Bush initially denied that climate change is real, ordering the phrase scrubbed from speeches and news releases throughout government and even threatening climate scientists like James Hanson at NASA, who has been outspoken in warning that global warming is as serious as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is.
Even after Bush grudgingly went along with the fact of global warming, his administration frustrated all efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon from coal-burning power plants and passenger vehicles.
In opposition to powerful lobbies
With his environment and energy-policy push, Obama is standing up to some of Washington’s best-funded and entrenched lobbies: electric utilities and the auto industry, along with their allied unions that have pretty much had their way ever since they stopped efforts by President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to improve auto mileage in response to the 1970s Arab oil boycott. It wasn’t until last year that the political landscape shifted enough for Congress to enact the 2007 Energy Act with modest fuel-efficiency improvements, in exchange for massive federal subsidies to help fund plant conversions to make smaller cars (this was before the recent auto bailout).
In St. Paul, the new wind behind the Clean Cars bill is also a slap at the Minnesota Auto Dealers’ Association, which last fall spent upwards of $30,000 to defeat Hortman — who, despite the campaign against her, won reelection handily.
In addition to giving a lift to science-based concerns about climate change, Obama repeated his oft-stated campaign pledges to work to overcome national and economic-security concerns in a nation that imports half the oil it consumes.
“It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil,” Obama said in a White House announcement.
‘This time will be different’
Others have said the same thing in pushing their agenda for biofuels or clean coal or nuclear power. But the president made it as clear as a trout stream that “this time will be different.”
He said he would direct the EPA to prepare to approve California’s long-sought authority to regulate auto carbon emissions. As well, he said the auto industry must further improve fuel economy of vehicles by 2011 and achieve a 40 percent mileage improvement by 2020, both remarkably aggressive mandates given the stonewalling of the last 30 years.
“I’m overwhelmed by the president’s clarity and by his understanding that we have to base our decisions on science,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division Committee. “It makes you wonder if you’re going to wake up and find you’ve been dreaming.”
Wagenius and Sen. Ellen Anderson of St. Paul, along with Rep. Bill Hilty of Finlayson and Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon of Duluth, all DFLers, have led the often-rancorous legislative efforts to curb carbon emissions.
The Next Gen mandates
After years of trying, in 2007 they succeeded in winning legislative approval of the Next Generation Energy Act, which mandates an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 with interim limits in 2015 and 2025.
Despite initial support by Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the “Next Gen Act,” his Office of Energy Security (OES) — housed in the Commerce Department — spent most of last year refusing to abide by the law’s requirement for the administration’s plan to meet even the easiest targets, 15 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2015.
The report (PDF) that was finally sent up to legislators last week, more than a year late, took 40 pages of material repeated from earlier reports to say that, essentially, the Legislature will have to choose from a long list of policy proposals assembled by Pawlenty’s own 56-member Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MGAAG).
The OES’ first director, Edward Garvey, left office amid open criticism by legislators — including Hilty and Anderson — that he talked about climate change and said nothing. The report sent to legislators by Garvey’s successor, Bill Glahn, was seen as more of the same long talk and little action. Glahn and the report’s co-author, Assistant Commissioner David Thornton at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, both declined repeated requests for explanations as to why their report contains so little substance given all the time it took to produce.
Sees positive economic effect
In Monday’s announcement Obama he faced head-on the persistent criticism that carbon-reduction and auto mileage improvements would have a negative economic effect. In fact, the president said, he believes the opposite is true.
He said that a new “green energy economy” in his proposed economic stimulus package would initially result in 460,000 jobs and a million or more as his policies take shape. As well, he said, the fuel-economy mandates would not only save consumers at the gas pump, but by developing green cars the U.S. auto industry stands to gain through expanding domestic and world markets.
It is widely expected that Obama will also follow up on campaign pledges to develop a so-called “cap and trade” system that utilizes market forces to create incentives to reduce carbon emissions. Under it, government would set a cap — or ceiling — of allowable carbon emissions and then require polluters to purchase ever-increasing carbon credits. During the campaign, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain also supported California’s carbon-emission waiver and a “cap and trade” system.
Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.