ENERGY POLICY:

Obama's SOTU nod unleashes lobbying on clean-power goal

The lobbying, negotiating and deal making now begins on clean energy legislation.

With President Obama in his State of the Union describing the framework for a "clean energy" measure, environmental, business and other groups this morning began to determine how they move forward.

Those who favor the concepts Obama laid out called the speech an important jump start for action.

"The approach now is for all those involved to figure out what's possible underneath that very ambitious goal that the president laid out last night," said Josh Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a progressive think tank. "Particularly, are there enough Republican senators who are willing to sit down at the table and talk about what they would like to see in this."

Others said they were likely to fight the president's proposal.

"If there was a broad standard that put natural gas, nuclear and clean coal in same category as renewable we would have serious, serious trouble finding a way to support that bill," said Sean Garren, clean energy advocate with Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy groups. "I don't see ourselves supporting something that would put all those in the same category."

Obama called for the country to produce 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy by 2035, a goal that he said would require a serious investment in technology and innovation and a reduction in oil company subsidies.

The president's speech came as many are talking about a clean energy standard, or CES, which would require utilities to generate a portion of power from sources that emit less carbon pollution like solar and wind but also nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and natural gas. It would expand on the renewables-only mandates that failed to pass the last Congress.

Parts of Obama's proposal are likely to hit strong opposition from Republicans, businesses and powerful trade groups.

"The devil is in the details; what will qualify and in what proportions," said Scott Segal, a lobbyist for coal-fired utilities and other energy companies at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP. "A poorly calibrated clean energy standard can be as harmful to the economy as a restrictive renewable portfolio standard.

"The cost impact of the president's proposal must be viewed in the context of the substantial regulatory burdens his administration is also imposing on the power sector," Segal added. "[These] regulations, which include clean air standards, waste regulations and water regulations, collectively place approximately half of U.S. electric generation at risk."

The president's words on coal as part of a clean energy future were "encouraging," said Lisa Camooso Miller, spokeswoman for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group of coal companies, coal-fired utilities and railroads.

But the organization's main lobbying focus is on U.S. EPA and stopping that agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Miller said.

"Our group has consistently said we're not in favor of EPA legislation before there's comprehensive energy legislation," Miller said.

The kind of measure Obama described is likely to create a division in the environmental community. Groups like the Sierra Club and Environment America said they are likely to oppose any clean energy mandate that includes nuclear, natural gas and some coal as options, while other environmental groups issued more cautious support.

The Natural Resources Defense Council supported the call for a clean energy future. But NRDC did not specify whether it could support a CES with nuclear, natural gas and coal with carbon sequestration.

"I applaud the president's ambitious goals in striving to boost clean energy generation in the United States," said NRDC President Frances Beinecke. "But the specifics are important. A true clean energy standard will foster more renewable electricity and energy efficiency and encourage us to leave behind old, dirty technologies we've propped up for too long already."

The president's goal, Garren said, might be less far-reaching than it first appears. If you include natural gas and nuclear as sources, he said, the country already is at close to 50 percent "clean energy." Already, he said, the country's power comes about 23 percent from natural gas, 20 percent from nuclear and 4 percent from renewable energy for a total of about 47 percent.

"We're already close to 50 percent, which makes 80 percent by 2035 a much less ambitious goal," Garren said, adding, "It's easy to pass something that looks more ambitious but doesn't get us very far ahead."

Freed with Third Way questioned whether environmental groups' opposition was counterproductive.

"How much are the environmental groups willing to compromise to get a significant accomplishment?" Freed said. "Too many in the environmental community have been willing to sacrifice the good at the altar of the perfect."

Third Way already has been meeting with businesses, environmental groups and lawmakers on the best way to proceed, Freed said.

"What we found is a high level of interest in the concept," Freed said.

The Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, plans to meet tomorrow to confer on how to approach a number of issues including a clean energy standard.

There could be division, as environmental groups that are part of that alliance have criticized the idea of a CES with nuclear, natural gas and coal with carbon sequestration. But some labor unions favor expansion of nuclear.

Immediately after the speech, the group kept its focus on the goal of a renewable electricity standard.

"Congress should take up the president's challenge and pass policies to jump-start the development and production of clean energy technologies in the United States, including a federal renewable electricity standard and the critical investments in manufacturing, infrastructure, education and broadband that will support the American economy of the future," the coalition's executive director, David Foster, said.

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