Obama Is Making Us Energy Independent. It’s Not Enough.

Bill Scher

In many ways President Obama’s energy policies have been a huge success. Carbon emissions are down. Oil consumption is down. Renewable energy consumption is up. North America is projected to be effectively energy independent by 2020, and the United States by 2030.

Some of the drivers of these results are market forces, but Obama’s policies played a significant role.

Carbon emissions are down in part because of the shift away from coal toward natural gas and hydropower for our production of electricity. While the regulations are not yet firmly in place, Obama’s crystal clear plans to impose carbon caps on power plants has dried up investments in coal. At the same time, Obama has not stood in the way of the natural gas boom and is looking to further it. Despite the concerns from some environmentalists about fracking, Obama and his new Energy Secretary argue that drinking water can be protected and methane can be captured.

One of the two main reasons America is projected to become a net exporter of oil by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, is because of Obama’s new regulations on automobile fuel-efficiency.

Wind power consumption has more than doubled, and solar power consumption is up 78% since Obama plowed $90 billion into producing more renewable energy, though China has also played a big role in driving down costs.

However renewables still amount to a paltry portion of our overall energy usage, with wind and solar power producing only three percent of the nation’s electricity. In other words, this is the area that has the most room to grow, the most potential for creating green jobs and further slashing our carbon pollution.

America may be down from its 2007 peak but the global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is steadily rising and on the brink of crossing 400 ppm. We not only need to do more, we also need to bring the world along.

$90 billion for renewables was unprecedented. But we need more, and we are unlikely to get it without collecting new revenue from imposing a price on carbon. Whether it’s through a carbon tax or by selling tradable pollution permits (cap-and-trade), putting a price on carbon will not only raise revenue but also will make clean energy more affordable for all, prompting consumers to make the choice of renewable over fossil fuel.

Europe has already taken this step. China is experimenting with cap-and-trade. In fact, so are several American states. We just need to get beyond this patchwork setup into a more integrated global system to ensure we meet the globe’s emission targets.

Obama is putting us on the right path by instructing the EPA to impose a cap on carbon for power plants. Once those regulations are in place, fossil fuel industries may become more receptive to congressional action, since the EPA can’t give them any subsidies to manage the transition towards tighter and tighter carbon regulations. But Congress can.

Of course, any major energy legislation will likely need to be bipartisan, because many energy issues bump up against provincial concerns that cut across party lines. But there is hope on that front:

A small but growing constituency of conservative climate realists is out there. Former congressman Bob Inglis has been trying to build Republican support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Former Reagan cabinet member George Shultz has made the same case. This year an pseudonymous Republican congressional staffer, using the pen name “Eric Bradenson,” won a conservative think tank essay contest pushing that position for “How the GOP Could Win the Climate Debate.”

Promising. But there is a catch: “revenue-neutral.”

As Bradenson explains:

The recent proposal by Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, for example, would spend 40 percent of carbon tax revenue on the Senators’ pet projects. It takes a concept that should have the intention of leveling out the market and then fundamentally distorts it by picking winners and losers with more government spending.

Republicans can win this debate by making it very clear: our carbon tax will not grow government. It will not take money out of hard-working American’s pockets to pay for more federal spending. It will instead be used to cut federal taxes, and it must be revenue neutral.

Accepting such a compromise proposal would dilute the carbon tax’s impact on the environment because all the new revenue would go towards cutting other taxes instead of using some of it to invest in making renewable energy more available and accessible.

Some day conservative Republicans will return to the realm of reality, and cut loose the birthers, ObamaCare repealers and climate deniers: and we will be having a debate over the particulars of climate policy.

The tough question liberals may well face is: can we accept a climate deal that puts a price on carbon but doesn’t immediately allow for robust investment in renewable energy? Is it worth taking a big step forward now and fight for the rest later, when time is of the essence and renewable energy is starving for support?

We don’t have the luxury of facing that dilemma today. We have to help Obama get his climate regulations implemented before anything else. But what our next step is, and how we get there, is worth pondering now.

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