Drawing Battle Lines In the Clean Energy Standard Fight

Bill Scher

In case you weren’t sure if the President was serious about investing in clean energy, yesterday, President Obama took time out of dealing with the crisis in Egypt to privately meet with the head of the Senate energy committee about drafting legislation to set a minimum level of clean energy that power companies must produce.

And today, he delivered a speech in Pennsylvania touting the plan for a “clean energy standard” as well as promoting other initiatives — some of which a don’t require congressional approval — to improve energy-efficiency in buildings.

One on hand, this is heartening. There is no prospect of passing essential comprehensive carbon cap legislation in the current Congress, so the fact there is some bipartisan appetite for raising our low-carbon energy production gives hope that we can keep moving forward with cutting emissions until the political dynamic shifts again.

President Obama made a significant concession in his proposal which makes many environmental advocates cringe — including non-renewable sources nuclear power and relatively cleaner coal. Under that broader definition, 40% of our electricity is already “clean” and Obama’s plan would double that by 2035.

This is not a dealbreaker for me personally, as under the now-scuttled carbon cap bill which the House passed in 2009, there was plenty of room for coal and nuclear but still would establish a strong cap sufficient to avert a climate crisis. Any politically plausible climate solution — to pick up necessary votes from coal-state Democrats and relatively rational Republicans — is going to include these power sources.

But did President make a mistake in offering another unilateral concession? Grist’s David Roberts frets:

So here’s how it goes down. Republicans hint at possibly being on board, only … they want EPA authority over CO2 reversed. Only … they want additional subsidies for “clean coal.” Only … they want supercritical coal plants without any carbon sequestration to count as “clean coal.” Only … they want more subsidies and regulatory favors for nuclear power. Only … they want EPA not to regulate natural-gas fracking…

… In the end, Republicans pull their support, there’s no deal, no policy, and the net effect of the experience is that Democrats are on record as being willing to compromise away what’s left of clean energy policy.

Surely, that’s what Republicans will try to do. And I suspect the biggest push for an additional concession will be to ban the EPA from using its current legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases — yesterday Republicans just unveiled legislation to do just that.

Kneecapping the EPA is absolutely a dealbreaker, and so far, the White House has signaled it would veto any such legislation. The EPA’s current legal authority is not sufficient to cut enough carbon emissions to avert a climate crisis, but we don’t have the luxury of time to do any less than what we already can.

This should be the standard to guide our energy policy going forward: does it help or harm our capacity to cut carbon emissions.

A new standard ensuring a major increase in clean energy production would provide the market certainty needed to create thousands of new clean energy jobs and give consumers affordable energy choices. But that would be nullified if the EPA can’t do anything to prevent the dirty energy industry from undercutting the clean energy industry.

Comments