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The Art of the Plausible

Prospects for clean energy legislation in 2011.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2011

Prior to the president’s state of the union address in late January, Washington was already abuzz over whether the new Congress would tackle energy legislation, which members might tackle it, and how.

The new Congress, or at least the Senate, began to consider various alternative energy policies right away. Those efforts got a strong boost from President Obama’s address. In the wake of last year’s stalemate in Congress over an economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade system, the Obama administration has seemingly made passage of a clean energy standard 1 (CES) one of its main 2011 legislative goals. Events are moving rapidly, and issues such as the unfolding drama over the fate of Japan’s damaged nuclear power plants or the continuing impasse on the budget might overtake some of the discussion, but substantial changes could result if Congress and the administration reach a workable compromise on energy and environmental legislation.

Prioritizing Clean Energy

“Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.” - State of the Union Address, Jan. 25, 2011

Prior to the state-of-the-union (SOTU) address, the administration’s energy legislation priorities were in some doubt. The president had expressed a desire to address climate and clean energy legislation in relatively ambiguous “chunks,” one of which could be a CES. Since this Congress seems likely to appropriate little or no new money to support clean energy programs, a CES might be seen by the administration as one of the only available options to advance Obama’s clean energy agenda. There could also be a sense of urgency at the White House to find something to help fill the void left by the failure to pass comprehensive climate change legislation in the previous Congress.

The president’s call at the SOTU for “80 percent of America’s electricity” to come from “clean energy sources” by 2035 sent a clear message: the administration wants a CES, and by addressing this policy initiative and some specifics about it (in addition to the specific goals and timelines, it will include “clean coal,” nuclear energy and natural gas), the president has clearly signaled his preference. While such prominent inclusion of a CES in the speech suggested a new activist posture on the part of the White House in developing that legislation, the White House hasn’t yet followed up with any public proposals. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the administration is evaluating the details of what a CES would contain, noting that preliminary modeling indicates “a clean energy standard will not automatically say everything goes to natural gas or everything goes to nuclear or everything goes to renewables.” 2 Hence, it remains possible that the administration will indeed try to lead this effort, and not follow the hands-off