Next president may have to wrestle with climate issue, regardless of who wins — political experts

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — The issue of climate change might be off the table for the upcoming election, but it is probably not dead for long, three political experts predicted yesterday.

Discussion about how to limit warming — and even talk about a carbon tax — has a fair chance of resurfacing next year regardless of who wins the presidency, Democratic and Republican insiders predicted as they spoke at Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference.

President Obama likely wants to enact more changes in his push toward clean power, said Cathy Zoi, Department of Energy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy from 2009 to 2011.

And although likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney has a conservative platform, a carbon tax might gain popularity when the president and Congress face tough choices about how to lower the deficit, said William Reilly, U.S. EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush.

When the Bipartisan Policy Center looked at ways to ease the debt crisis, Reilly said, it found that a carbon tax looked better than other alternatives. The conservative American Enterprise Institute has suggested that a penalty for greenhouse gas emissions should replace a number of energy industry subsidies.

“I don’t think you’re going to hear much talk about that in this election, for obvious reasons,” Reilly said. “But it does strike me that eventually leadership will have to face up to a crisis.

“It’s not implausible that people will look at [a carbon tax] seriously and decide that it’s the least bad of a number of alternatives,” Reilly said.

Action in the spring of 2013?

After the election, the heated party rivalry will cool, opening the door for action, said John Podesta, chairman of the liberal Center for American Progress.

“In the spring of 2013, all these ideas are going to be on the table,” Podesta said. “When you get to closing that last [revenue] gap … a carbon tax could become an attractive alternative to everything else.”

The tax issue comes at the same time as other events could force the president to deal with global warming, the panel said. Polls show that more Americans are linking extreme weather with climate change, Reilly noted.

“The country’s getting it,” Reilly said. “The country believes that these [events] are related to climate change.”

Meanwhile, 35 states have some sort of mandate that a portion of energy must come from renewable power. Those include states like Texas with conservative voters and Republican governors, Reilly noted.

“Republicans are not attacking those,” Reilly said. “They are positive. They are creating jobs.

“There’s a lot happening now that’s more encouraging than one would get from the conversation with the [presidential] candidates,” Reilly added.

That does not mean the clean energy issue won’t turn into a weapon the GOP wields against Obama, the panel members noted.

Unions are complaining that EPA regulations enacted or under consideration are costing jobs. That includes the rule limiting mercury and other emissions, which likely will result in the closure of older coal-fired power plants.

Job creation and losses

Panel moderator Nina Easton of Fortune asked whether that could damage Obama particularly in swing states, like Ohio.

Podesta rejected that a majority of people even in those states will see the EPA actions negatively. “Most of those states have seen a strong manufacturing response to these clean technologies,” Podesta said. “It’s actually a rather easy sell there. [Obama] ought to be full-throated about supporting what the administrator of the EPA is doing, and I suspect that he’ll get public support.”

But Reilly said it could be a problem for the incumbent.

“I don’t think we can realistically say that we’re going to displace or shut down a significant amount of coal-fired power in the United States without affecting jobs,” Reilly said. “Of course we are. A lot of people work in those coal-fired power plants.”

However, said Reilly, over the long term, the costs of the agency’s actions probably are lower than people fear. Historically, he said, on “every single initiative,” EPA has “overestimated cost and jobs impact.”

‘Unfinished business’

The bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which received a $535 million Department of Energy loan, likely will stay in the GOP’s talking points against Obama, Zoi said.

“Solyndra has become the whipping boy,” Zoi said. “It is one tiny part of a program.”

She defended Obama’s actions on clean energy, saying that much has been accomplished through EPA regulations, new standards for appliances, and money for research and development.

“It adds up to something that’s pretty darn special,” Zoi said, although it is not the same as China’s five-year plan.

Zoi said that she has had “conversations with the president about the clean energy policy” and that it “is the unfinished business that we need to deal with. He and all of our colleagues in Washington palpably get that the energy sector is in rapid transformation.”

Reilly agreed that there has been action on climate, noting the new EPA and Department of Transportation mandate that vehicles reach a 54.5 mpg fleetwide standard by 2025.

But he warned that environmentalists need to change their language on climate.

“Environmentalists have kind of run out the string on moral rectitude on talking about the dire future,” Reilly said.

Instead, he advised, they should talk about events happening today as a result of climate change.