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Obama’s Two-Track Approach on Energy

By / 1.27.2011

As often happens with State of the Union addresses, President Obama’s speech left a lot of D.C. pundits and policy types unsatisfied and complaining that he didn’t lay out enough specifics, or that he didn’t use clear enough language to endorse one policy proposal or another. And for some of the areas that he breezed through so quickly between his Sputnik references, they’re right to be hungry for more.

But one area where he did manage to send some strong signals was on energy policy. He didn’t lay out a long list of proposals here either, but he made it clear that he plans to push for an ambitious two-part energy agenda: encouraging technological innovation through research and development funding, and pursuing a strong national Clean Energy Standard (CES) that shifts our energy production away from the dirtiest categories of traditional power resources.

Supporting energy R&D isn’t really anything new for Obama, but the 80 percent CES target for 2035 is a more exciting announcement. It’s a bold attempt to take Congress again into the breach of debating a national energy plan, which requires more than relying on innovation alone. It’s a starting point for talking about what we want our mid-term future to look like, and how we intend to realistically manage our energy resources over the course of the next few decades.

One reason Obama is able to set the goal so high at 80 percent is that his definition of “clean energy” in this proposal is very broad. It goes beyond the zero-carbon category of renewables and nuclear, and includes partial credits toward the goal for natural gas and clean coal (see DOE’s fact sheet), a step that goes beyond most CES proposals that have been floated in Congress, and well beyond what many environmental advocates are comfortable calling “clean.” But Michael Levi has done an excellent job providing first-responder estimates of what the country’s generation supply would look like in 2035 under this proposal, and concluded that it’s clearly a more ambitious target than last year’s Senate bill.

In practice, Obama’s CES target is also very similar to the Balanced Energy Portfolio target for 2040 that PPI is proposing in an upcoming paper, but more on that later.

Just as the CES proposal is a new beginning for energy policy this year, Obama’s speech also signaled a new approach to framing the arguments for his proposals, both in what he said and what he didn’t say.

First, what he didn’t say: the phrase “cap and trade” didn’t come up, but that was no surprise, especially after he chose not to say much about it while it was dying a slow and public death in the Senate last year. But some of the other things he didn’t include in this speech are more interesting. He didn’t use the words “climate” or “environment” once. And no mention of global warming, carbon, EPA, or clean air. Apparently Obama not only wants to put cap and trade behind us, but he wants to move beyond the climate debate and talk about energy only in terms of innovation, competition, and clean energy jobs. With so many Republicans in the House now proudly flaunting their rejection of climate science, Obama’s move is politically understandable, even if it’s not morally commendable.

Next, what he did say: Obama’s call to arms was announcing a “Sputnik moment” for clean energy and national competitiveness, rhetoric he and John Kerry have been using a lot in recent weeks. It isn’t clear to me how they are defining this moment, but apparently my confusion is reasonable, since Obama himself wasn’t so clear on it back in 2009 either, when he sent a different message on energy [courtesy of Rachel Brown]:

There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation’s challenges to break our dependence on fossil fuels. In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve—and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead.

Frankly, I like Obama’s earlier message more than his new one, because I don’t really subscribe to this idea that clean energy development is a race that we are going to win or lose as a nation. However, I do think we should be taking much stronger steps than we are now to shift our energy use to cleaner resources and grow clean energy industries globally, so if Obama can make that happen by convincing Americans that a Chinese solar research center poses the same type of existential threat to our way of life as Russian rocket technology we couldn’t match in 1956, more power to him.

The best takeaway from Obama’s case for competitiveness is that we need a sustained national commitment to innovation, recognizing it as a comparative advantage we should exploit wherever possible.  This is true not only for clean energy, but for other innovative industries as well, as my colleague Michael Mandel emphasized this week. That commitment needs to be a shared effort that we value as part of our culture, with appropriate roles for the public, private, education, and non-profit sectors. It is a position that all progressives should rally around, because it’s one that will be under attack from the new goon squad of Tea Party conservatives, who want to cut most public spending just for the sake of cutting.

Just as progressives need to present a united front in support Obama’s call to defend well crafted R&D programs in the face of conservative budget roll-backs, progressives also need to raise their voices in support of his Clean Energy Standard proposal. Obama is right that investing in innovation and R&D is the key to finding long-term solutions that will be good for our economy and our planet, but innovation alone is not enough. Robert Stavins made the case last year that carbon pricing and R&D are both necessary, and one or the other alone is not enough, and I agree with his argument for the most part. And while a CES is a less efficient substitute for cap-and-trade, Stavin’s point still holds: whatever the incentive structure, we need a resource planning policy that reshapes today’s energy markets, while we wait for tomorrow’s solutions to become a reality.

President Obama deserves praise for taking a bold step toward an actual energy plan for the country, and he deserves it from all progressives. That means those of us who would prefer to see a stronger approach that includes a price on carbon, or those who are disappointed with Obama for moving too far to the center, should see the CES proposal for what it is: probably the only opportunity we have to move forward on energy resource policy in the next two years (at least), and therefore and opportunity that must be seized if at all possible. It also means that those who have advocated for innovation-only approaches need to extend their enthusiasm over Obama’s speech to support the CES together with other progressives, instead of trying to claim the mantle of leadership for themselves exclusively, as some have done this week.

Both pieces of Obama’s agenda are going to be tough to pass, and it goes without saying that they will require a better plan of attack than last year’s. There are a lot of details to be fleshed out, and some horse-trading compromises as it moves forward that won’t sit well with everyone. But the president has stepped forward this week and shown some real leadership, and progressives should return the favor as he takes the fight to Congress.