Better get used to it, said a bipartisan panel of Washington insiders today (Nov. 16) at the Atlantic Green Intelligence Forum.
For now, and for the rest of the Obama administration, when it comes to energy and climate, the White House and Congress will use the tools at hand, and not invent new ones.
“We all agree–big bills are dead,” said Carol Browner, the former White House climate czar and a Democrat.
“I never want to hear the word comprehensive again because once you hear the word comprehensive, you know a bill is never going to pass,” said James Connaughton, the former Bush II White House environmental adviser.
What this means, unfortunately, is that the U.S. won’t get an energy and climate policy that is sufficient to deal with the threat of global warming until 2013 at the earliest, even as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise rapidly. Just a week ago, the International Energy Agency warned that it will be impossible to hold global warming levels to safe levels without dramatic shifts towards low-carbon energy sources in the next few years.
In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with today’s wasteful patchwork–federal and state tax breaks (for wind, solar, corn ethanol and electric cars), federal loan guarantees (for nuclear power, renewable energy and electric car manufacturing) state-level renewable portfolio standards (mostly for wind and solar) and EPA fuel-economy standards (which regulates cars, but do nothing to discourage driving). Worse, we’ve got counterproductive subsidies for oil and gas production.
As Connaughton said wryly: “When you incentivize everything, you’re basically incentivizing nothing.”
This doesn’t mean that meaningful progress can’t be made. As Browner and David Hawkins, the veteran climate advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council both noted, agencies like EPA and NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminsitration) have broad powers to regulate electric utilities and cars, which together account for well over half of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, by regulating mercury emissions, EPA can make it too costly to operate older and dirtier coal plants.
“We can have some big debate about climate change,” said Browner, who was the Clinton administration EPA chief, “but we can also focus on getting things done.”
Indeed, even as the panelists spoke, the Obama administration announced, as expected, new rules requiring cars and light trucks to achieve a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by the 2025. Environmentalists were delighted. “Today’s announcement is more good news for American consumers, auto manufacturers, public health and the environment,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement.
When combined with other historic steps this administration has taken to increase energy efficiency, today’s announcement will save Americans more than $1.7 trillion at the pump and an average of more than $8,000 per vehicle by 2025; reduce America’s dependence on oil by an estimated 12 billion barrels and reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day by 2025 (enough to offset almost a quarter of the current level of our foreign oil imports); and slash 6 billion metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the programs.
That may well be, but the new standards will also add $2,000 to the cost of every new car and truck, the administration’s analysis found–an indirect and hidden cost that few buyers will ever connect to the fuel-economy rules. What’s more, as Dave McCurdy, the former president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers noted at the Atlantic event, fuel-economy standards are at best an imperfect way to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.
That’s partly because when people buy more fuel-efficient cars, they drive more. A more efficient way to discourage gasoline consumption, he said, would be to raise gasoline taxes.
“We’ve not priced the externalities of fuel. We’ve not priced the costs of being dependent on foreign oil,” McCurdy said. “When did consumers start moving from less fuel efficient vehicles to more fuel efficient? When gasoline hit $4 a gallon…Over a long period of time, you could have a real movement (upwards in prices) and I think the country would be stronger for it.”
Similar inefficiencies can be found throughout today’s policy patchwork.
On a more encouraging note, Connaughton and Hawkins noted that political winds can shift quickly–and bring change, which need not be complex. [See my recent blogpost, Time for a Carbon Tax?]
“I remain, as ever, an optimist,” said Connaughton, who is now an executive vice president with Constellation Energy, recalling that a bipartisan energy bills were passed by Congress in 2007–not that long ago. “There’s climate change fatigue, but we shouldn’t lose heart or hope.”
Said Hawkins: “Reality is going to intrude, and we’ll get back this (climate) agenda.”
Hope, as they say, springs eternal.