February 21, 2011
President Obama has decided that the failure of last year’s comprehensive climate bill does not have to mean the death of climate policy. Instead of imposing a mandatory cap and stiff price on carbon emissions, as the bill would have done, the president is offering a more modest approach involving sharply targeted and well-financed research into breakthrough technologies, cleaner fuels and more efficient cars and trucks.
This is all part of a broader investment-for-the-future strategy that he outlined in his State of the Union address, and it all makes sense as a way of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, creating more green jobs and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Yet even this retailored approach is sure to whip the Republicans into a fresh frenzy of opposition. They have already made clear their determination to cut off financing and otherwise undermine the Environmental Protection Agency, which plans to regulate carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial sources using its authority under the Clean Air Act.
But basic scientific research? Energy efficiency? Cleaner fuels? The House Republican budget resolution gives the back of its hand to even these worthy and unobjectionable strategies, which until now have enjoyed reliable bipartisan support.
Mr. Obama’s outlays for the Energy Department would jump 12 percent next year to about $30 billion, despite planned austerity elsewhere in the government. Of this, $8 billion would be devoted to research and development, aimed broadly at a greener economy.
Inside the research-and-development budget are robust investments: a $450 million increase in basic science, doubling (from three to six) the number of Energy Innovation Hubs to encourage collaboration among universities, government labs and the private sector; $550 million for the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E, which looks into cutting-edge ideas. There’s also a $1 billion increase for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and a $588 million jump — 88 percent — for advanced vehicles.
The main area of agreement between Mr. Obama and the Republicans seems to be nuclear power. Both sides support extensive loan guarantees to an industry that hasn’t built a new reactor in years but could supply a lot of clean power if it ever got going.
Otherwise, as expressed in their budget resolution, the Republican agenda is breathtakingly negative: a mere $50 million for ARPA-E, $900 million less for basic science, $900 million less for energy efficiency and alternative fuels, a much-reduced loan program for deploying clean power sources like wind, solar and geothermal.
Some of these programs would take extra hits because the bill would, unconscionably, strip them of unused stimulus money, a hefty $10 billion in the case of efficiency and renewables.
The message to the White House and the Democratic leadership is clear: get ready to fight. Mr. Obama was AWOL in last year’s struggle for a comprehensive climate bill — a great pity because he had more support in Congress than he does now. He’ll need all the energy he failed to expend last year — and more — to achieve even his slimmed-down objectives this year.