Despite Washington’s wider political split, a potential still exists for finding common ground on such energy-related steps as creating jobs in electric-car manufacturing or expanding nuclear power and domestic natural gas as cleaner alternatives to coal and oil.
But taking these steps will require Republicans not to see their big wins in Congress as simply a mandate with no possibility of compromise. For Mr. Obama, a diminished power for Democrats signals the need to lessen his ambitious energy goals and to welcome different directions.
One big lesson of the 2010 elections is that some regions want to steam ahead on difficult energy choices and others don’t. That calls for a more nuanced federal role, one that allows room for differing ideas on energy security, climate change, economic trade-offs, and the role of markets.
California voters, for instance, decided Tuesday in a ballot initiative to keep their 2006 clean-energy law that will curb greenhouse gases and support clean-energy industries. And in the Northeast, where 10 states are already cooperating to impose a cap-and-trade system on big polluters, election results indicate continuing support for that project.
In contrast, candidates who doubt climate change is real – or simply doubt the human role in the increase of heat-trapping gases – won many seats in the Rust Belt or areas highly dependent on the coal or oil industries. Many of these regions also favor the tea party’s focus on big cuts in federal spending, which would work against national projects on energy.
This mixed picture means Obama must reevaluate two of his boldest energy initiatives: pushing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cap carbon pollution without a consensus in Congress and his promise to other nations that US emissions will be cut by 17 percent compared with 2005 levels.
He may already be making that shift by talking now about solving energy issues “in chunks.”
In his postelection news conference Wednesday, the president spoke more about “energy independence” than climate change. He reached out for compromise with Republicans and hinted at an end to his hope for a cap-and-trade system. He appeared lukewarm about the EPA’s drive to impose anticarbon rules on industry.
Even before the newly elected Congress takes office in January, the issue of reining in the EPA’s regulatory drive may come to a vote in the lame-duck session.
Obama could help create a mood for later deals on energy by backing a measure pushed by Jay Rockefeller, a Democratic senator from coal-dependent West Virginia. It would compel the agency to halt its action for two years – to give Congress more time to sort out policy about global warming.
The biggest message for Obama and Republicans coming out of this election is voter demand to help the economy create jobs.
While Republicans will push for a reduced government role – fewer regulations and lower taxes – the economy still needs at least one industry to serve as a leading job creator making big investments in the future.
After past recessions, the United States relied on either the auto, housing, or computer industries to be that leader in job creation. Now it may be energy’s turn.
A federal role does clearly exist in supporting big investments in nuclear power, carbon sequestration, and domestic gas reserves, all of which are necessary steps toward reducing carbon pollution. And Washington should be rightly concerned that Asia and Europe are leaping ahead as export giants in clean-energy technologies, such as components for solar and wind.
Surely, both political parties can create more support for research and development in such fields as advanced batteries, better fuel efficiency, and a smarter electricity grid.
No one energy idea is going to have 100 percent political support. But unless Obama and Republicans are simply angling to win in 2012 by stymieing each other’s proposals, they can do the horse-trading needed to put together an energy bill next year. That may be the best chance to create jobs and help the US become a global competitor in cleaner energy.