Thursday, August 12, 2010

By Executive Order

I recently ran across a mention in the New York Times of a new study suggesting a variety of energy and climate measures the administration could undertake on their own, without requiring new legislation passed by Congress. I've been thinking about this during some long stretches of driving this week. At first glance, the group's ideas merit consideration, and they might indeed be sufficient to meet the near-term emissions reduction goals the US endorsed at last year's Copenhagen climate conference. However, as tempting as such an approach might be in a year of legislative gridlock on energy, its pitfalls probably outweigh its benefits.

I haven't had time to scrutinize the report of the Presidential Climate Action Project item by item, since I'm on vacation. It caught my eye mainly because of the involvement of former Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart. So my reactions don't really constitute analysis, but are more along the line of ruminations on a first impression that I might examine in more depth later.

At the very least, the idea that the administration could take major steps--beyond what it has already done--to reduce emissions and shift our economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels represents a potentially significant new scenario for the energy/climate environment, particularly if the mid-term elections reduce or eliminate the current Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. It could provide a new policy twist that many of the companies and organizations that have invested so much time in working with Congress on these matters haven't incorporated in their planning.

The problem with such an approach arises from the same source as its appeal: the lack of a sufficient bi-partisan consensus in Congress to enact these changes legislatively. Without a consensus spanning both parties and all factions, any action the President takes on his own could be reversed within a few years. We're not going to lick climate change or our energy problems in the span of any one administration; these problems look much more like the Cold War and require a similarly enduring bi-partisan coalition to deal with them. Major energy policy swings every 4 or 8 years would make this approach much more costly and much less effective, because of the planning and investment horizons involved. The evidence of that is already on display, as this administration reverses many of the energy policies of its predecessors.

Such an outcome is even likelier if these policies become overly identified with a president whose popularity has been waning and who is by no means assured of a second term, barring an unexpectedly robust revival of the US economy. Congress might be even less popular at the moment, but it remains the venue in which a long-term, bi-partisan energy and climate strategy must be hammered out. If a comprehensive energy bill with limits on carbon isn't possible today, important elements of a least common denominator approach to energy security and lower emissions could likely still be enacted. That could include more effort on energy efficiency and a low-carbon electricity standard encompassing both nuclear power and with the currently favored list of renewables. Future administrations and congresses could build on these steps later. A modest compromise along these lines wouldn't please everyone, but it seems preferable to an approach that depends on one party controlling the White House in perpetuity.

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