The White House Says Climate and Energy Legislation up Next on Capitol Hill

During a panel organized by U.S. News & World Report entitled “Going Green: America’s Cities and the Role of Government,” Carol Browner, Director, Office of Energy and Climate Policy, The White House, said now that healthcare has been tackled, President Obama will focus on a comprehensive climate change and energy program. A new climate and energy plan is critical if the U.S. is to remain competitive in renewable energy. Browner said, “There has been a global clean energy revolution. How are we going to participate?”

While Waxman-Markey will not pass in the Senate, new legislative proposals are being developed by Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham that will involve direct fees or taxes on carbon instead of an economy-wide cap and trade system. The White House has been providing “technical assistance,” and the President has also visited a number of members on this issue. The Obama administration has yet to see the details of the new Kerry / Lieberman / Graham proposal, but Browner thinks we will have the “right debate on the right bill” soon.

Even if you don’t believe climate change is happening, Browner said, there are still reasons to support comprehensive climate and energy legislation. The most important reason: companies need clear market signals before they will invest further in green technologies. “The U.S. hasn’t put the right policies into place so green companies don’t know if there is a market for their products.” Browner said clear directions on renewable energy are desperately needed if the U.S. is to maintain parity with China and India. “The U.S. figured out how to create solar panels. We should be at the forefront of this global market.” 

There is enormous domestic demand for clearer regulatory standards on renewable energy. To prove her point, Browner said there were some $2.3 billion in renewable energy recovery grants available, but the administration received more than $5 billion in requests, demonstrating “pent-up demand.” Browner also said clear regulations are needed to move markets in greener directions. The EPA has done this before sucessfully. “The EPA set the standards for catalytic converters. Once we did this, there was a race to meet the requirements. One firm that took advantage and won that race is now a global leader for that technology.” In the same way, if rules are set on carbon, firms will find opportunities to innovate and make money. 

An agreement on car efficiency standards will be finalized this week, meaning that cars will need to hit 35 mpg by 2020. The new rules are expected to help reduce GHGs released from cars. Browner cited the key role of the EPA’s endangerment finding. “We needed the endangerment finding to get an agreement. This was a scientific finding, not a regulatory or political decision.” The recent Supreme Court decision allowing the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions from cars if they found they endanger public health laid the foundation for these new car rules.

The decision, Browner said, also enables the EPA to “move into other areas” of CO2 emissions. Through the EPA, “we can take on other emitters beyond cars.” However, Browner argues that comprehensive legislation on Capitol Hill was favorable to EPA movement on regulating all sources of CO2 emissions.

While others have been critical of expensive carbon capture and sequestration schemes, Browner said this was a possible solution for mitigating the adverse environmental effects of coal-generated power. “Coal is going to be part of our energy mix for a long time. We need to invest in technologies to make coal production cleaner.” 

On water, Browner concurred with an audience member who said “energy consumes water and water consumes energy.” She said there are more efficient ways to treat water, namely preventing pollution from going in in the first place. “We spend lots of money polluting water, and then lots more to take out the pollution.”

In contrast to the critics of the UNFCCC Copenhagen meeting, she thought it was a success because it was the first time India and China have released detailed GHG emission reduction plans. To participate in the next stages of the process, the U.S. “must get its own house in order.” This is not only needed to reach a global agreement, but also to create more domestic jobs. “We need a whole new generation of jobs.”

Watch a video of Browner’s remarks.

Image credit: Inhabitat

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