My great hope for President Obama's next term is a comprehensive set of energy policies that will meaningfully address climate change. But I don't expect immediate action. Given the combination of obstructionist House Republicans and the looming issues of debt and immigration reform, Obama will have a hard time implementing a wide-ranging energy plan in the next few months.
But this does not mean energy and climate have to return to the political sidelines. There are several meaningful short-term opportunities for the Obama administration. Here are five pragmatic goals I'd like to see the President tackle in the next hundred days. While these measures will likely gain more support from Democrats than Republicans, each offers a degree of bipartisan appeal that should increase their chance of success:
1) Extend the Production Tax Credit for wind energy. Tax incentives for wind power are set to expire at the end of 2012, and wind manufacturers have already seen business slow in response. Wind power is one of the great successes of renewable energy development and its costs have been lowering dramatically. But with natural gas prices at a historical low, the industry needs continued support. The tax extension will cost about a billion dollars and is well worth it. Moreover, this is not simply a Democratic Party issue -- a bipartisan collection of governors recently endorsed this policy measure to further the goals of energy independence and job creation.
2) Eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel companies as part of any fiscal reform deal. Republicans have been explicit about wanting to increase revenues by closing loopholes rather than raising taxes. Getting rid of subsidies to oil companies making record profits is one way to achieve this goal. At the same, it will enhance the prospects of renewable energy companies by removing advantages from entrenched interests. Though there is considerable debate about which subsidies are extraneous, even the conservative Heritage Foundation advises eliminating several existing loopholes.
3) Initiate a process to develop comprehensive fracking safeguards. Natural gas production in the United States has grown dramatically over the last few years as a result of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology. Yet there are serious environmental health concerns about fracking, particularly concerning chemical contamination of drinking water sources. President Obama should spearhead an effort involving citizens, politicians and industry representatives to create regulations that better protect health and safety. This will help provide legitimacy and public support to an industry that many Republicans consider essential to economic growth and energy independence while also increasing environmental protections.
4) Promote alternatives to the Keystone Pipeline. Americans could benefit from new energy transport infrastructure. But these should provide renewable energy, not extend our dependence on fossil fuels (for more on why the Keystone Pipeline is a bad idea, see my previous columns here and here). Instead of debating the Keystone Pipeline, President Obama should be shifting the conversation to a focus on transmission lines that will connect promising sites of wind power with urban consumption centers. For example, Google has backed a $5 billion transmission wire network intended to serve offshore wind farms on the eastern seaboard and developers are planning an 800-mile transmission line from Oklahoma to the Southeast. Because projects such as these offer the potential to increase America's energy independence, they should draw at least modest support from Republicans. The President's explicit support of these infrastructure systems can help facilitate approval and attract funding.
5) Pledge that the administration will no longer talk about clean coal. Clean coal does not exist. Though there are techniques that reduce the pollution of burning coal, most of them are either inadequate to address climate change meaningfully or far too costly to implement. It is time to begin phasing coal out of our energy matrix. Though Republicans will likely object to any decrease in domestic energy production, the sting will be lessened by the fact that most coal-producing states are heavily Democratic. Because of this, the President will likely face significant objections from his own allies. But the nation will be much better served by focusing attention on expanding renewables. By ceasing to embrace the misguided support of clean coal, President Obama can make an important statement about his administration's commitment to addressing climate change.
In the long-term, we will need much more comprehensive action to address climate change, including the likely passage of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. But in the short-term, these five measures offer modest steps forward that are practical to consider because they offer some degree of bipartisan appeal. Until the President can devote his full energy to addressing climate change, they are a good starting point.