US energy policy after the Republican victories: compromise or conflict?

When President Obama spoke about his new-found spirit of compromise after the Democratic party’s “shellacking” in the midterm elections, energy policy was one of the areas where he suggested Democrats and Republicans might be able to work together. The deep partisan divide over climate policy might make that seem a ridiculously hopeful aspiration, but in fact there are some areas of energy policy where the two parties ought to be able to find common ground.

Translating that into effective legislation, however, will be something else again.

The election results have confirmed what has become increasingly clear over the past year: there is no chance of national curbs on greenhouse gas emissions passing through Congress for the foreseeable future.

Last year the House passed the Waxman-Markey energy bill, which proposed a target for cuts in emissions and a cap-and-trade system to deliver those cuts, but the legislation then died in the Senate. In the new Republican-ruled House, such proposals will never come close to the agenda.

President Obama himself read the last rites over cap-and-trade on Wednesday, saying:

Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat… It’s not the only way. I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.

The “other means” he referred to seem likely to include support for renewable energy, through various means such as direct subsidies, loan guarantees, extended tax breaks – some of which are scheduled to run out at the end of the year – and possibly even a new federal renewable portfolio standard mandating a set proportion of electricity to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

Referring to the row that is looming over the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to control greenhouse gas emissions, which come into effect next year, the president sketched out a vision of bipartisan co-operation on some of those measures.

With respect to the EPA, the smartest thing for us to do is to see if we can get Democrats and Republicans in a room who are serious about energy independence, and are serious about keeping our air clean and our water clean and dealing with the issue of greenhouse gases, and seeing are there ways that we can make progress in the short-term and invest in technologies in the long-term that start giving us the tools to reduce greenhouse gases and solve this problem.

The key is the not-at-all accidental reference to “energy independence” as the first item on the agenda for this putative gathering of Democrats and Republicans. The dream of self-sufficiency in energy has been criticised by countless industry experts since Richard Nixon first proposed it back in 1973, but the idea has impeccable Republican credentials, and still commands widespread support within the party.

Routes towards self-sufficiency in energy – in particular, ways to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil – were at the heart of a thoughtful report recently from think-tanks across the political spectrum, called “Post-Partisan Power”, which advocated putting increased funding into research supporting new energy technologies, paid for by a “modest” tax on carbon.

Another vision of future energy legislation comes from the “American Energy Act“, proposed last year by the Republicans and backed by John Boehner, the presumed next Speaker of the House. That plan was heavy on support for nuclear power and “unconventional” resources such as shale gas and oil, as well as for renewables and energy efficiency. It also called for an expansion of offshore drilling; a proposal taken up by Mr Obama, to his administration’s enormous embarrassment, shortly before the BP oil spill began in April.

While that increased access for oil exploration and development now now seems to have been deferred indefinitely, other elements in the plan could still have a future. New nuclear development has been struggling in the US, but the administration has been just as enthusiastic about it as the Republicans have been.

Another area of consensus might be over the increased use of natural gas for power generation, which could curb carbon dioxide emissions by replacing coal-fired generation, and make use of America’s domestic shale gas resources.

The problems will come when when the objectives of energy security and emissions control come directly into conflict, as they do particularly in the case of coal. There is plenty of coal in America, but it is also the most polluting of the fossil fuels. There has been bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate to support the roll-out of electric cars, but if all the vehicles are powered by coal-fired electricity, the greenhouse gas savings that result may be small.

For most Republicans, the increase in carbon dioxide emissions that would be caused by increased use of coal is an irrelevance. As an interesting survey of the view of the new Republican intake by ThinkProgress shows, half of the 100 or so new GOP Representatives and Senators now entering Congress do not believe that man-made climate change exists.

In many parts of the US, however, the demand for greenhouse gas emissions controls remains strong, as reflected in the crushing defeat in California of Proposition 23, the attempt to suspend the state’s controls on emissions and support for clean energy.

Finding the common ground between those two positions may be a challenge to defeat Mr Obama’s hopeful talk about “serious” people from both sides coming together.

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