Is This All a Dream? No, It’s Political Reality

Close your eyes and remember last spring: We had a very popular, newly elected president demanding that a comprehensive energy bill be passed before Copenhagen; we had a bi-partisan group of congressional leaders pushing for a cap and trade bill; and we an American public generally supportive of it all. What an amazing time it was.

But as attention in Washington turned to health care and the debate got despicably contentious, energy was pushed to the side and, after Copenhagen, essentially ignored.

Today, it seems as if all that talk about energy reform was just a pleasant spring-time dream.

Now that energy is back on the table as a priority in the nation’s capital, the frame of discussion has changed drastically: President Obama is highly disliked by a large number of Americans; Congressional Republicans are loath to give the White House or Democrats another “win” in an election year; and cap and trade has been effectively tarred as a redistribution of wealth under the President’s new socialist agenda.

Congressional leaders who support cap and trade like Republican Lindsay Graham and Democrat Joe Lieberman have called the policy “dead.” ::continue::

And in an effort to reach across the political isle, Obama is now supporting increased offshore drilling, nuclear power plants and a more aggressive focus on clean coal. This has raised the ire of many environmental groups worried that the administration is losing focus and squandering a unique opportunity to boost clean energy.

But is that really the case? Have we unraveled everything that the industry and advocates have worked so hard for? Absolutely not. Support for renewables is still at an all-time high. And many people would argue that this latest challenge presents a new opportunity to make climate change legislation more effective.

Here are some reasons to be optimistic:

  • Whether you agree with them or not, Obama’s political bargaining chips (offshore drilling, nuclear) will make it much harder for opponents to say “no” to an energy bill. They might be very tough pills to swallow for some people, but this is how American politics works. Given the divided nature of the electorate, such concessions were bound to happen.
  •  Now that cap and trade is “dead,” this might give us a chance to look at alternatives that are less complicated and less politically volatile. Critics on the left criticized the cap and trade program as “cap and give-away,” and critics on the right criticized it as “cap and tax.” Because of the complex nature of the cap and trade program, many politicians have called for a way to tax emissions at their source (rather than economy-wide) and pass the revenue onto Americans through direct payments. This may be a more effective and more politically-palatable option.
  •  Does anyone remember the billions of stimulus dollars set aside by the Obama administration for renewables? The stimulus package leveraged billions more in private capital, ensuring another stellar year for the industry despite being challenged by one of the greatest economic calamities in history. This administration has made it very clear that it will continue to support renewables – and 2010 is already looking up.
  •  Finally, the details of a new energy bill are far from clear. But we’ll likely see necessary things like tax credit extensions and a renewable energy standard that will give further clarity to the market. Even without a carbon price, that will be a major step toward maintaining our competitiveness in the race to develop clean energy.

 The political winds have certainly changed in Washington. But when looking at the efforts of this administration and when considering the reality of American politics, things are pretty darn good for this industry.

Let’s just hope the latest debate over energy doesn’t unravel like health care, turning this dream into a nightmare.

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I am a reporter with ClimateProgress.org, a blog published by the Center for American Progress. I am former editor and producer for RenewableEnergyWorld.com, where I contributed stories and hosted the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast. Keep in touch through twitter! My profile name is: Stphn_Lacey

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