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Policy Update 2/1/2011: Obama calls for "clean" energy


Policy Update 2/1/2011: Obama calls for "clean" energy

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Last week President Obama delivered a tone-setting State of the Union Speech before the new Congress and 48 million viewers nationwide. Widely regarded as a move to the political center, Obama's speech addressed many criticisms levied on the president by Republicans and the business community. The president spoke at length about the promise of "clean" energy, yet he included nuclear, natural gas and "clean" coal in his definition (everything but old coal plants). The president mentioned "the planet" in passing but failed to connect the dots between clean energy and the need to stop climate change. While Obama's "clean" energy rhetoric frames the energy debate that may follow in the coming year, the GOP-led House has their sights set on scrapping Obama's most powerful weapon against climate change: The Clean Air Act.

State of the Union

President Obama's energy rhetoric fell into the frame of "Winning the Future," cited as key elements of building a more competitive nation in a global economy. New energy technology was linked to new education policies and a push for public investment. The speech included the following energy commitments, clarified in a White House fact sheet.

80% of U.S. electricity from "clean" energy sources by 2035

President Obama's definition of "clean" includes nuclear power, "clean coal," and some natural gas. The White House calls this "a doubling" from current levels, and will include extra funding and regulatory measures to achieve these goals. If energy efficiency policy succeeds in flattening demand, this policy could result in the retirement of a significant portion of our existing coal fleet. David Roberts of Grist explains the potential impact.

Access to high speed rail for 80% of Americans by 2035

This "significant down payment" will be included in the president's budget. Additionally, one million advanced technology vehicles by 2015, is a part of the plan, to be supported by new funds for manufacturers, consumers, R&D, and community infrastructure grants.

An "end" to fossil fuel subsidies

This would cut $4 billion per year in subsidies to oil, gas, and coal. Outside estimates suggest there are currently $15 billion per year in fossil fuel subsidies.

Despite these firm policy goals, the president's vision faced criticism from the climate community:

  • In the lead up to his speech the climate and public health community called on the president to stand up for the Clean Air Act in his speech, to defend against attacks from polluting industries.
  • While the president committed wholeheartedly to "clean" energy, his vision of "clean" included nuclear power, natural gas, and "clean" coal in addition to traditional renewables like wind and solar.
  • David Roberts argues that clean energy is no substitute for climate change. Roberts says that ignoring climate change may work in the short term, but eventually the case must be made connecting the two.
  • Energy rhetoric aside, one of the most historic developments in this year's State of the Union was the new seating arrangement. Many members of Congress chose to sit in pairs with a colleague from the opposite party. The New York Times gives us the full view of the seating chart.

Attacks on The Clean Air Act

The House is on recess, but the Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) is set to consider legislation to gut the Clean Air Act in the next three to five weeks.

  • Potential presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supports dismantling the EPA altogether, according to a remark made in Iowa last week.
  • Members of Congress in the House and Senate are considering a bill called the REINS Act that would require congressional approval for all major administrative actions. A bill like this could cripple Clean Air Act programs and other public health regulations.

The infamous conservative funding duo, the Koch Brothers, held a strategy session in California last week that was protested in the face of their attacks on climate policy.

Last week Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reached an agreement over minor changes to Senate rules. Though their agreement fell far short of fixing the filibuster, their compromise will hopefully result in less gridlock this Congress: The majority will make it easier for amendments to be offered, and the minority will give up some of their power to stall legislation on its way to the floor.

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