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.
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"We were thrilled with the president's overall focus on the power of clean energy," says Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's Washington office. "Where we've been completely disappointed is the massive nuclear loan guarantees and the offshore oil."Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the oil and nuclear offerings, which Republican lawmakers wanted, may enable Obama's Senate allies to craft a deal on carbon-emissions pricing.
Bipartisan energy-climate bill
As soon as April 20, Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina are expected to unwrap a compromise energy-climate bill that puts a price on carbon emissions in exchange for nuclear and oil development gains.
"The administration can only go so far by itself," Mr. Pumphrey says. "If you want to change the system from one dominated by fossil fuels to one dominated by low-carbon fuels ... you have got to have Congress on board."
Despite Obama's initial actions, big long-term questions remain. Can he reach his goal of having 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015? Will that do much to lower US emissions? Can he slash greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels, by 2020?
"Unfortunately, they've been proactive about things that may only yield marginal improvements," says W. Ross Morrow, an assistant professor of engineering and economics at Iowa State University in Ames.
Lead author of a recent analysis of Obama's transportation policy, Dr. Morrow says oil consumption and carbon emissions from transportation "are much harder to reduce than they look." To reduce transportation emissions 14 percent below 2005 levels, by 2020, could require gasoline prices of more than $7 a gallon, he and his coauthors at Harvard University's Belfer Center found.
The good news is that even aggressive policies to slow climate change will not necessarily slam the brakes on the economy, Morrow says. High fuel taxes and high prices on carbon emissions would curb US economic growth by no more than one percentage point, Morrow's study found.
"The changes Obama has made so far won't get everyone in the country to drive less – something that would have a much bigger impact," he says. "So we can't just say, 'Hey, we have new mileage standards, so we've got our oil problem solved.' "
Among those on the political left, some say Obama can yet pull off an overall energy-climate bill.
"From his experience with health care, the president now realizes it is possible to get landmark legislation through the Senate," says Bracken Hendricks, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "I think there are fair-minded Republicans who realize this is important for the country."
There's an even more compelling reason for Obama to keeping pushing, says Book.
"You only get an opportunity like this once in a lifetime," he says of the possibility of shifting US energy use. "We have a chance to write our own policy, craft our own plan. If we don't do it, our trading partners will be setting the terms for us."