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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chunks: A(nother) New Approach to Energy Policy?

By Alex Trembath. Cross-posted at Energetics and the Americans for Energy Leadership Blog.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama addressed the failed climate/energy attempt of this summer, promising to move forward with a reinvigorated agenda in 2011. However, any such action will likely bear little resemblance to previous attempts. Mr. Obama conceded that "we may have to end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive legislation." If this is indeed going to be the form of a new course of action on climate/energy for Mr. Obama, commentators are beginning to wonder exactly what those "chunks" will be.

Never mind the fact that the most recent attempts at energy reform have been piece-meal to begin with--that's more or less inevitable with so many regulations, markets, fuels, interest groups and players at stake. Before its total dismantling, the American Power Act (formerly Kerry-Graham-Lieberman) was a hodge-podge of cap-and-trade, tax incentives and subsidies for renewables and clean coal technology, loan guarantees for next-generation nuclear power production, and a slew of regulatory reforms to preempt state action of GHGs and promote energy efficiency. Of course that bill never came close to a floor vote in the Senate, but my point stands: a "comprehensive" bill would have to be built one brick at a time anyway, so maybe Obama's explicit "chunks" approach will get the job done.

So what's on the table this time around? And, more importantly, what can pass a divided Congress?

Glenn Hurowitz at Grist proposes his favorite chunks in his "Peanut Butter Plan." He advocates a combination of tax credits for carbon capture; regulations to reduce black carbon pollution; intensifying regulations banning HFCs; and international finance to help LDCs adapt to climate change. Hurowitz refers to these four as "low-hanging fruit" solutions, and believes that if combined properly they could achieve greater emissions reductions than more comprehensive legislation.

Andrew Revkin kick-started a similar discussion over at DotEarth, putting forward a couple of his favorite policy chunks to replace a larger bill. He credits Hurowitz's list, and adds making the R&D tax credit permanent and the RE-ENERGYSE program to the list. If anything, Mr. Revkin's recommendations are more comprehensive than "chunky," as he puts it. Rather than approaching certain piece-meal aspects of climate/energy one at a time, Revkin's suggestions create policy infrastructure for energy innovation and energy education at large. Instead of writing different legislation for solar, wind, CCS, nuclear, EE, carbon finance, and emissions regulations (to name a few), funding for innovation and education create the foundations of a workable and flexible industrial policy on energy.

I'm a fan of piece-meal, and I'm a fan of big picture. But the problems will arise, as usual, with the politics. As Senator Jay Rockefeller said, "We [the Senate] tend not to be very good at chunks, but then you could argue that we tend not to be very good at big things either." Bonus points for honesty. However, a recent piece in Politico might forecast some political leeway for the President as he moves forward with a chunks approach. The article cites Senators Brown (R-MA), Alexander (R-TN), and Snowe (R-ME) as potential allies on a chunky approach, in addition to Democrats like Rockefeller, John Kerry and Dick Durbin.

A quick aside on the politics. Much has been said that, if Republicans have been so unwilling to cooperate thusfar with the Obama Administration, what makes us think that the chances for climate/energy legislation will be higher in 2011, when Republicans will certainly have more seats in both Houses? To the naysayers, I offer my cautious optimism that Republicans will accept their increased share in political power as an opportunity to shake off the still trenchant "Party of No" vision that many voters have adopted for them. Beating Democrats in Midterms is one thing; beating a still reasonably popular President in 2012 without a legitimate Republican frontrunner will take more than straight obstruction. Time will tell.

But I digress. What would I add to the chunky climate agenda? Well, I appreciate the efforts of individual members of Congress to promote clean coal, nuclear, renewables, energy efficiency, biofuels and other fuel-focused policies. However, I would add my name Mr. Revkin's endorsement of research and innovation before partitioning climate/energy policy into too many segments. In addition to increasing cleantech R&D funding to at least $15 billion annually and re-investing in science and engineering education, we should expand the scope of DoE's ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, and create public private partnerships with similar goals of targeting and funding specific energy technology projects for demonstration and deployment.

Like extending the research tax credit and RE-ENERGYSE, these proposals are less chunky and have received proportionately lower attention in Congress. However, policy and business leaders from the Brookings Institution and the Information Technology and Innovation Council to the American Energy Innovation Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute have all advocated similar approaches to our energy challenges. I've consistently added my voice to these calls to actions here and with Americans for Energy Leadership, who have done excellent work on the RE-ENERGYSE proposal in particular.

At the end of the day, we need a strong energy agenda, one way or another. But looking past the chunks, we must keep pushing for a policy infrastructure built on education, research and innovation, without which such piece-meal approaches may not be able to form an effective climate/energy agenda.

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