Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When he speaks to Congress tonight, President Barack Obama will repeat many familiar points about his 2013 agenda.
But the State of the Union speech will be Obama’s first opportunity to present a detailed, second-term strategy for the issue he has identified as his next priority: energy.
At present, his strategy on energy policy is far less clear than his strategy on gun control or immigration.
During his inauguration speech last month, Obama informed the country that he planned to pursue an aggressive energy agenda and “respond to the threat of climate change,” even if “the path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”
Many Democrats had been waiting the past four years to hear those words. But while winning a second term may have given Obama freedom of purpose to propose an ambitious agenda, it didn’t win him the Congress he may need to get it done.
With the parties still bitterly divided over the value of traditional and clean energy sources, Obama will have to carefully pick and choose just what steps are necessary to constitute a response to climate change — and how to bring an increasingly fight-weary Congress on board.
“Welcome to the new energy gridlock,” said Daniel J. Weiss, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress. “Same as the old gridlock.”
Energy is certainly not the only issue around which there are divisions in Washington. Republicans and Democrats are bitterly split over budgeting, and the parties are still soul-searching their way through to an immigration bill.
But the divisions over energy have the added bonus of being fragmented: In addition to basic philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats, many can’t even agree within their own ranks on how broad an energy strategy to pursue.
During the 2012 campaign, leaders of both parties declared themselves to be in favor of developing an “all of the above” energy strategy — a term that recalls a range of energy resources from traditional oil and gas to new markets like hydropower and natural gas, to renewable energy sources like the solar, wind and geothermal projects prevalent in Nevada.
But turning that list into laws has yielded a much more a la carte approach.
In the first few weeks of the 113th Congress, while Obama is calling for a climate change agenda, House lawmakers are gearing up to press for drilling and oil-development projects, such as permitting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Obama’s promise to fight climate change and carbon emissions runs directly counter to the House Republicans’ priorities, which are to develop the country’s carbon energy industries first.
“Hydrocarbons are the path to an economically prosperous future, and we should be doing all we can to ensure plentiful and affordable supplies,” House Energy and Power subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield wrote in an op-ed in the Hill newspaper this week. “The administration’s misguided ‘all of the above but nothing from below’ approach treats our abundant hydrocarbons as a hazardous energy source of the past, not worth of the future.”
Meanwhile, in the Senate, leading energy lawmakers are trying to avoid the potential for a fight by carefully dissociating themselves from the energy-tackling zeal radiating from the House of Representatives and White House.
Sens. Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski, who control the Senate Energy Committee, “have agreed not to start on the controversial areas,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said. “They don’t want to highlight areas of disagreement.”
“With a big, omnibus bill — you just attract opposition when you do something that big,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski. “If you’ve got something for everybody to like in a big bill, you’ve got something for everybody to dislike, too.”
Instead of talking about climate change and oil, the Senate Energy Committee leaders have decided to devote their attention to addressing issues about which there is little to no dissent, such as energy efficiency, natural gas and hydropower, and noncontroversial public lands bills.
They hope that building up good will around those types of issues may pave the way for addressing the more controversial topics, such as carbon emissions caps and offshore drilling. But no one is willing to make a prediction as to just when — if at all in the 113th Congress — lawmakers will have reached that comfort point.
“We’ve tried it the other way, and we spent the last two years doing nothing,” Dillon said. “This committee did absolutely zero. ... We’re hopeful that the new approach will yield some more bipartisanship.”
But focusing on easily achievable bipartisanship doesn’t get the president any closer to a comprehensive climate change bill.
Energy experts aren’t quite ready to throw in the towel over Obama’s energy agenda because of senators’ preference for playing this piecemeal and the danger of picking a fight with House members.
“There are some areas where there might be some room for agreement,” said Kevin Massy, assistant director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative.
Though the stimulus-era programs that supported renewable energy projects such as the Tonopah solar power plant are likely a thing of the past, there is some bipartisan support for the idea of putting more federal dollars toward renewable energy research and continuing to sponsor technology-neutral energy project investments.
Massy also suggested hydrocarbon fuel — which Obama praised during his campaign — and infrastructure development are areas on which Republicans and Democrats could agree. Energy exports, he added, also would demand Washington’s attention in the next year.
But with Republican lawmakers wary of anything that sounds like regulation, even a balanced scheme with sweeteners to the carbon industries would be a hard sell.
For now, climate change boosters are beginning to turn their focus away from the congressional options and toward what Obama can do on his own, which is what makes the plans he may outline in the State of the Union speech so important.
“We expect the president to talk about his plan to develop carbon pollution reduction standards for existing power plants and other major polluters,” said Weiss, pointing to a series of industry-by-industry regulations that Obama could implement solo. “The president can continue the transformation from dirty, unhealthy fossil fuel-based energy to cleaner, renewable energy using executive authority — and what I really mean is using existing laws.”
Still, that won’t make anyone happy. Republicans are extremely put off by the Obama administration’s pattern of using executive authority to tackle energy issues — and as stated before, despite the idea of more regulations.
And it would be difficult, through executive actions, for Obama to live up to his climate change constituents’ expectations.
“Congressional action would be more comprehensive,” Weiss said. “Executive authority is a lengthier and more cumbersome process ... but the Obama administration achieved a lot of progress the first time relying on executive action. And I think they can continue to rely on executive action in the second term.”