Obama's Energy Plans Remain Works In Progress

Solar panels and windmills. i i

The president has asked for the design of a new electricity grid to deliver more solar and wind energy. A project of this scale would be a huge undertaking. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Solar panels and windmills.

The president has asked for the design of a new electricity grid to deliver more solar and wind energy. A project of this scale would be a huge undertaking.

iStockphoto.com

Benchmarking Obama

  

For more on Obama's first 100 days, check out NPR's scorecard.

President Barack Obama says he wants his administration to be a leader and a partner when it comes to green energy and climate change. And his economic stimulus package throws about $39 billion at energy projects.

But so far only a few checks have been written, primarily to states, for weatherizing homes. The president has also directed the federal government to buy hybrid electric vehicles and to start designing a new electricity grid to deliver more solar and wind energy.

Obama has earned praise for appointing a Nobel Prize winner and green energy advocate to run the Department of Energy. Steven Chu is a scientist's scientist, though he admits he's still in the deep end of the pool when it comes to negotiating Washington politics.

One accomplishment Chu can point to is some house-cleaning at the department's loan guarantee program for energy research projects, a program infamous for paperwork delays.

"The loan guarantee program has been completely overhauled," Chu says. "What would have taken about four years — we're trying to compress that to months."

But most of Obama's promises on energy and climate remain works in progress.

Cleaning The Nation's Energy

And there are plenty that have seen no significant action. There is no tax on windfall profits for oil companies, for example.

And from the point of view of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the president is missing chances to clean up the nation's energy economy. Karen Harbert, the chamber's energy expert, says the president hasn't done much to encourage nuclear power or to seek energy independence. She says opening up offshore oil drilling could help solve that problem. But Obama has postponed lease sales.

"We don't have a magic switch to just switch to some other fuel immediately," Harbert says, "so let's produce it at home, produce those jobs here at home, and the opportunity is right on their watch."

On the climate front, environmental groups applaud the team of experts the president has appointed, especially the creation of a climate adviser in his Cabinet.

Carbon Trade Initiatives

The major climate policy change pending in Washington hasn't come from the White House, however, but from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). The legislation would put a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases industry can emit, and it also allows companies to trade emissions permits to ease the burden of living within that cap. Climate experts say it's the most powerful tool there is for reigning in carbon emissions.

So far the White House has neither endorsed nor opposed this so-called "cap-and-trade" idea, which has puzzled climate experts.

Abyd Karmali is head of carbon markets at Bank of America Merrill-Lynch. He was in Washington recently at a carbon trade expo. "Most critical is going to be whether President Obama is successful in engaging with the minority party in the House and Senate," he says, "and in convincing them that enactment of a cap-and-trade scheme is something that should be done this year."

Obama will have to work on members of his own party who are skeptical of cap and trade as well.

Forcing The Hand

But the president has other options.

Leslie Carothers, the president of the Washington think-tank Environmental Law Institute, says the administration can always go around Congress. "Lisa Jackson, the new head of EPA has said, 'You know, hey, if Congress chooses not to go forward with this, we will go forward under the Clean Air Act and use our authority under that statute.' "

In fact, EPA has announced that it has the legal authority to do that.

Whatever grade the Obama administration is getting now, it's worth noting that it did take a lot longer than 100 days to build an economy based on fossil fuels.

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