Before coming to The Nature Conservancy, I worked in local and then state government for many years, almost always directly for elected officials. The circumstances were often difficult. There were fiscal problems, unfavorable politics, corruption, and unexpected events. What separated success from failure was the ability of a politician to find a way to somehow move forward despite adversity.
This could hardly have been a more adverse year for federal climate and energy legislation. Both climate and energy bills died in the Senate. Talking about climate change became a political liability. It looked like it might all be put on hold for the next several years.
And yet, in his State of the Union address last night, President Obama used the context of economic growth, jobs and competitiveness to recast energy policy by setting some ambitious goals:
- 80 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2035, and
- a million electric cars on the road by 2015.
Achieving these goals would not only stimulate our economy and increase energy security, it would also significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions and, thus, reduce the rate of global climate change. So the president has identified ways of moving forward.
Supplementary information provided by the White House says the president would accomplish his goals by investments in research and development of new energy and battery technology and by creating more certain markets for alternative energy (although how that is to be achieved is not clear). The Nature Conservancy’s analysis suggests that to reach the 80 percent level by 2035 would require us to replace about 60 percent of current energy-generating capacity with a combination of renewable sources, new nuclear and efficient gas.
Old and inefficient coal-fired generation would be the first to be retired. Gas may be seen as transitional fuel as we develop new technologies such as deep geothermal generation with even lower carbon emissions. Energy efficiency should also be given more importance in such an overall approach.
These strategies, if successful, could be one of a number of efforts that would help to achieve the kind of long-term reductions in carbon emissions that are needed to stabilize the Earth’s rapidly changing climate. So it has multiple benefits: jobs, cleaner air, energy security and reducing the rate of climate change. But the goal will require aggressive action by the public and private sectors.
The goal of a million electric cars by 2015 is similarly ambitious and goes hand in hand with the objectives for clean energy. Generating sources must be made cleaner to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions from electric cars.
The Nature Conservancy supports all this with the proviso that there is adequate protection for the environment— including wildlife habitat—in the deployment of emissions-reducing energy technologies. Among other things, this means using the mitigation protocol to guide siting of energy facilities on public land, where possible, for energy siting and design on private lands—this strategy can help ensure that critical wildlife habitat is avoided and that potential harm to other natural areas is minimized or offset. We have not yet taken a position on nuclear power as a component of a clean-energy standard, but siting issues, particularly the impacts of plant-cooling technologies, are important here, too.
The president also defended continuing regulatory authority in the federal government, although he talked about streamlining laws and making enforcement efficient and logical. The Nature Conservancy believes that America’s laws governing clean water, clean air and toxics control have been of great benefit to people and wildlife and, while regulatory processes can be improved, the basic integrity of these statutes should be defended.
So, all in all, in difficult times, the president’s State of the Union speech is a step forward for energy policy and its attendant benefits. We are in a race with time for energy security, a sustainable economy and for reducing the impacts of carbon pollution. And forward is good.
Photo by Jim Richardson. Evening photograph of the Spearville Wind Farm just north of the town of Spearville, in Ford County, Kansas.