President Obama's newest pledge to resume an "urgent priority" on climate change next year could mark a new direction by Democrats that veers away from the politically hazardous effort to cut the bulk of national carbon emissions in one sprawling measure.
An umbrella carbon policy failed despite a two-year attempt by the Democratic majority. Bite-size bills on electric cars, natural gas trucks and utility carbon caps might be reflective of a new strategy by Obama as he approaches midterm elections that promise to add Republican muscle to Congress.
"One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels," Obama said in a wide-ranging interview published online yesterday by Rolling Stone.
"We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation," he added. "But we're going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it's good for our national security, and, ultimately, it's good for our environment."
The adjustment would replace legislative efforts to design mega-climate bills packed with things like energy efficiency provisions, renewable power incentives, nuclear loan guarantees and complex cap-and-trade systems covering three economic sectors: utilities, manufacturers and transportation.
It became clear this summer that a contingent of Senate Democrats and most Republicans would bristle at the loaded measure, even though it reflected a successful approach in the House a year earlier, of which Obama said: "It wasn't perfect, but it was serious."
The Senate never got close to voting on the climate bill, introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
The president's new approach has similarities to the cap-and-trade backup plan that emerged from the frayed "economywide" effort. Representatives of the electric power industry, environmentalists and Senate aides scrambled this summer to find agreement on a narrower approach: capping just utility emissions.
"I think it's safe to say that time ran out on that issue," said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser with the Bipartisan Policy Center, which participated in some of the negotiations. "A utility-only cap was an idea that was never really tested in the Senate."
"There's an assumption, for some reason, that a more Republican Senate means it's less likely for climate legislation," he added. "I don't necessarily accept that. A more bipartisan Senate can lead to more organic legislation."
'I am committed'
Obama was not specific about the "chunks" of policies he would pursue. But there is no shortage of options. Bipartisan bills were introduced in the Senate seeking to ramp up electric cars, increase nuclear power and shut down the oldest coal-fired power plants.
Another element found in most comprehensive climate efforts that is gaining momentum -- a renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from clean sources and efficiency -- has been introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
Whatever policies the president chooses, he pledged to put the full weight of the White House behind them, something environmentalists accused him of not doing as Kerry and Lieberman scrambled to find support for their bill this year.
"Not only can I foresee it," Obama said when asked if he will put his shoulder to the legislative process, "but I am committed to making sure that we get an energy policy that makes sense for the country and that helps us grow at the same time as it deals with climate change in a serious way."
That effort will likely come with diminished Democratic numbers in both chambers, and probably with some newly elected tea party candidates in office. That could disrupt both parties' cohesiveness, making it difficult to form coalitions and pass legislation, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
"I don't know what kind of legislation, if any, you can get next year or even in 2012," she said. "I think the odds of getting serious stuff done legislatively are very small."
Claussen gave Obama credit for implementing landmark fuel standards in vehicles -- "That was a big deal," she said -- but she's skeptical of the president's claim, made in the interview, that the nation can achieve a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 without a price on carbon.
"I'm dubious," Claussen said.
Did the recession kill climate legislation?
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, also approached the president's new pledge cautiously. He said legislative strategy won't be known until after the reshaped Congress is sworn in.
"It's very apparent that whatever is going to go forward in Congress, it will have to be done in a bipartisan basis," Krupp said. "It's too early to know what that might like look like yet without knowing who will be in Congress."
David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council is still leaning toward "one package" of climate legislation. "But legislation in chunks is better than inaction," he said in an e-mail. "Time will tell which we can get done."
Obama referenced his Energy secretary, Steven Chu, as saying the climate problem needs three solutions: energy efficiency, "some sort of pricing in carbon," and innovative technologies that don't yet exist.
The emphasis on technology -- and the public incentives that can spark the capital that's needed to drive it -- is an element generally liked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which can mount big opposition to, or support for, any legislative effort.
On the other hand, "Whether it's going to be a comprehensive approach or a piecemeal approach, we're going to be concerned with policies that increase cost," said Matt Letourneau, communications director of the chamber's Energy Institute.
He pointed to a renewable electricity standard as one example.
"Perhaps it's a recognition that the public wasn't ready to accept a big comprehensive cap-and-trade bill," he added of Obama's "chunks" strategy.
The president's comments sought to assuage concerns among his supporters that Democrats had not yet addressed every item on their agenda. It might also be intended to energize complacent Democratic voters at a time when low turnout on Election Day could perhaps propel Republicans to power in the House.
"During the past two years, we've not made as much progress as I wanted to make when I was sworn into office," Obama said. "It is very hard to make progress on these issues in the midst of a huge economic crisis. ... That diverted attention from what I consider to be an urgent priority [on climate change]."
But that's not the entire story.
"I think by putting other things first, meaning health care and financial regulations -- and I'm not saying they were the wrong priorities -- but by putting them first and because they were controversial and partisan, I think it made it impossible to really get to this," Claussen said of climate.
"I think we have to be honest about that."
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