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Obama's gambit to marry US policies on environment and energy

The president has integrated energy security goals with environment policy, focusing on renewable power. But his effort won't succeed, analysts say, unless Congress agrees to put a price on carbon emissions.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2010

President Obama spoke during a tour of a solar energy firm in Acadia, Fla., last fall. He has focused on renewable power and energy security.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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True, America is still guzzling fossil fuels. But since taking office just over a year ago, President Obama has quietly set the nation's energy policy on a new course.

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Even as health care dominated the news, Obama energy czar Carol Browner – working with the departments of Interior, Energy, and Transportation – has established a new, unified energy-and-environment policy. But whether this focus on renewable power and energy security can succeed depends largely on whether Congress approves climate-energy legislation that puts a price on carbon emissions, energy experts say.

"For 20 years we've been ... drifting in the wrong direction," says David Pumphrey, an energy and national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This administration has turned things around. What's important is that we are ... moving in a positive direction now."

Energy accomplishments so far

He and others tick off the administration's most significant energy-related accomplishments to date:

• Accelerating adoption of renewable energy – wind, solar, and geothermal power and battery-powered vehicles – and high-speed rail via $90 billion in new spending and tax incentives from last year's economic stimulus act.

• Defining greenhouse-gas emissions as a danger to human health and the environment, paving the way for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate them – or for Congress to control them by placing a price on them.

• Unveiling a new "clean car" standard that, for the first time, regulates greenhouse-gas tailpipe emissions. Meshing that with new fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1 billion tons of emissions.

The administration has "been very effective and very activist on their executive policy agenda," says Kevin Book with ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington market research firm. "Obama has tightened regulations on fossil energy at every level, defined greenhouse gases as pollutants, and, with the stimulus act, made gains for renewable energy."

Will Congress cooperate?

Now, however, the president faces his biggest energy test for his union of energy-environment policy: getting Congress to pass a comprehensive climate-energy bill that will put a price on carbon emissions – legislation now stalled in the Senate.

Unless there is a price to be paid for carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, construction of coal and natural-gas power plants could surge, while wind and solar power construction dry up.

"Think of it this way: We're three-quarters of the way through the academic year, and Obama's team is getting an 'A-' or 'B+,' " says Mr. Book. "But the final exam is worth 50 percent of the grade. The legislation is critical. If they don't get that done, they will have achieved momentous things that nonetheless will come up very short."

That's why, despite widespread doubt that another big bill can get through Congress before the November elections, Mr. Obama seems likely to push now for a vote on a climate-energy bill, says Book.

Obama has already taken two steps intended to make compromise easier (though they angered many environmentalists and Democrats). Late last month he opened parts of the Atlantic, Gulf, and north Alaska coasts to oil and natural-gas exploration. In February, he said the government would add $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear-power construction.

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