Energy Issues Fight For Obama's Attention

Governments and industries around the world will gauge the president's commitment to ambitious energy legislation passed earlier this year in the House. Considering all the other issues on the president's plate, does he have the time to help push the measure through Congress?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR news analyst Juan Williams is following this story.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's pick up on a couple of points that Richard Harris just made there. There's this energy bill that's passed the House, tries to restrain carbon emissions and substances blamed for global warming, but can it pass the Senate?

WILLIAMS: Well, at the moment we don't know. What we've got is two key committees - the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee - on track to introduce a bill by the end of September and then begin the markup process in October. So what, you know, sort of steam powered momentum exists as we head towards Copenhagen and the international conference really is about public support, which continues to be pretty strong in the United States for energy independence, for protecting the environment; that argument is there.

But on the negative side you have the House bill prompting 10 Senate Democrats, moderates, to write to President Obama calling for protection for U.S. manufacturers. There's splits among the Democrats, the coal oil manufacturing states worried about spikes in electrical bills. And also you have Democrats really worried.

And we heard some of this in Richard Harris's report about the kind of loud opposition health care reform encountered in those August town hall meetings. So while the White House is preoccupied with a lot of the health care debate still, what you see on climate change is it's kind of sitting there and lacking the kind of domestic pressure necessary to push it through.

INSKEEP: Now there is that cap-and-trade program, were you're buying and selling carbon and that's in the House bill that was passed over the summer. We heard in Richard's report about a skepticism toward market-based answers among the public, but what about the businesses who would actually be affected? Is there any enthusiasm for this market-based approach among businesses?

WILLIAMS: Well, there's a little bit. Clearly, you have them worried exactly about, you know, how it would work, because what you're talking about here is basically setting up incentives to limit carbon emissions by allowing sale or auction of the emissions credits. So it's not an outright limit, but you have a lot of these companies that would be affected saying wait a second, you know, exactly how's this going to work? How much is going to be auctioned? How much is for sale? Opponents saying the cost of buying the credits are just going to be passed through to energy consumers and amount to an energy tax.

And then they're also talking about, well, you know, what are these other ways that we're going to generate energy? They're still expensive and unreliable. So even, again, coming back to the domestic politics of the deal, in August, you had for Democratic senators reject cap and trade, say they will not vote for it under any circumstance - Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and then the two North Dakotans, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.

INSKEEP: And when you hear somebody say, as we just did, that "the health care debate is now really crowded out all other political activity" - that's a quote from a moment ago - you do wonder if the president is going to have time to deal with this and to build public support for this, at the same time he's trying to save his health care plan.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, look. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said recently that he has a busy schedule. He said look, December's not the end of the deal, but if you're talking about getting it done by the end of the year, and that has been the timetable, then you've really got to talk about wait a second, does this deal include money for nuclear power plants? That might be one way to go about this. Or does it include a mandate for utilities to put out a certain amount of power from renewable energy sources? That's another possibility.

But your point's well taken. You've got to build public pressure as part of the political equation inside the United States. The White House has been somewhat absent on this. But we've got to make the argument at some point for incentives for green technology, jobs that would be created, conservation, global coordination. You've got to build that public support somewhere, and it just hasn't been happening.

INSKEEP: What happens to the president if he doesn't get this done?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there was hope that he would go to Copenhagen in December, and the idea was that he was expected to attend and he would have something from the United States to put pressure on China to bring them into the game. They're the two biggest producers of carbon emissions in the world. If he doesn't get this done - I think it's part of the difficulty the administration is having. In part, if he gets health care done, maybe he can start to pay attention to climate change. But for right now, it just looks like it's tough votes. You know, he needs to get the health care deal done. And if he doesn't, then the question is where is the grassroots enthusiasm necessary to put pressure on the Senate? So at this moment, it just looks very doubtful, Steve.

INSKEEP: Juan, good talking with you, as always.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. He's at our member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio this morning.

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