President Obama used his first primetime Oval Office address to tout the need for a climate and energy bill, but he skimped on details about what the White House wants in Senate legislation.
Backers of a comprehensive energy and climate bill hoped the president would lay out a road map as the Senate prepares for a summer floor debate, but Obama offered few specifics and may have lent credence to a "smorgasbord" measure combining aspects of various bills -- including a renewable electricity standard and increasing energy efficiency but not necessarily including a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -- as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels," he said.
Obama continued a recent theme of his administration and congressional Democrats in linking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to an urgent need for legislation aimed at slashing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," Obama said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met with key committee leaders last week to discuss how to proceed with a floor debate next month on energy and climate measures and is planning a full caucus meeting tomorrow among all 59 Senate Democrats.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), co-authors of a Senate cap-and-trade bill, said that Obama has joined their fight.
"There can be no doubt that the president is rolling up his sleeves to ensure we establish a market mechanism to tackle carbon pollution, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year, strengthen energy independence and improve the quality of the air we breathe," they said in a joint statement.
The president made no endorsement in his speech, however, of a specific mechanism for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, although he applauded the House for passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill last summer, saying the chamber acted on principles he laid out as a candidate "that would move our country towards energy independence."
Lieberman said yesterday before the speech that he hoped Obama would underscore the need for a market mechanism for pricing carbon.
"The truth is, trying to make America energy independent without creating a market mechanism to price carbon, would be the equivalent of President Kennedy launching our national effort to put a man on the moon without building a rocket," Lieberman said. "It's that important, and any alternative legislation being proposed -- including some that has some good stuff in it -- that doesn't do something to price carbon, will not unleash the billions and billions of dollars in the private sector that are waiting for that signal to put their money into clean alternative energy sources for our society."
Lawmakers pushing alternatives to the Kerry-Lieberman bill may see opportunities in Obama's promise to consider an array of legislative approaches.
"Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks," Obama said. "Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development -- and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.
"All of these approaches have merit and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead," Obama added. "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction."
Beyond the Kerry-Lieberman package, other legislative ideas on the table include: Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) bill (S. 1462) with a nationwide renewable energy standard; an alternative "cap and dividend" approach (S. 2877) for pricing carbon emissions from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); and a bill (S. 3464)that promotes energy efficiency from Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Collins said yesterday that a "strong endorsement" by Obama in his speech would build momentum for the Senate to tackle an energy and climate bill.
Collins suggested the Senate should use the bipartisan energy bill from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee as the "platform" for this summer's energy debate and allow senators with other climate and energy proposals to offer their proposals as amendments.
"It could be a platform for a debate on a whole variety of issues including offshore drilling, expansion of nuclear energy and all sorts of bills to put a price on carbon," she said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) also called for an energy bill yesterday. "Honestly, it's a question of how we can address climate change," Snowe said. "I mean, I just don't think it can be broad and sweeping. Any time we can address energy and conservation and renewables and the things that we need to do to become energy independent, you know, absolutely, I mean -- long overdue."
Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting, said it was telling that Obama did not call specifically for putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
"Instead he rattled off a number of options from energy efficiency, to portfolio standards, to the Waxman bill," Wheeler said. "This underscores the widespread belief that the Senate isn't interested in cap and trade. Energy efficiency is bipartisan and a much easier goal than cap and trade.
"I think it is very reminiscent of the beginning of the health care debate where he defined success extremely broadly," Wheeler added.
Obama's comments also echoed those of his White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, from earlier this month. Emanuel told The New York Times that he wanted to pluck ideas from each of the Senate proposals. "There's enough in each," he told the newspaper, for "a serious and comprehensive energy bill. And you can do it this year" (Greenwire, June 9).
Dems, enviros embrace White House push
Despite the lack of specifics, environmentalists and congressional Democrats hailed Obama's speech last night as a welcome call to action for the Senate.
Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation, said Obama showed foresight to call for energy legislation even though his first priority is stemming the oil leak.
"It's his first Oval Office address and he wants to focus on the right solutions, not just the easy solutions," Symons said. He added that it was not surprising that Obama wanted to keep his message tight during the 15-minute speech.
Despite Obama's brevity, Symons said, the president made it clear that "there is going to be a reckoning one way or another between the oil industry and the public, and Congress is going to be called upon to stand up and tell us who they're siding with."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) also welcomed Obama's remarks. "If there is any silver-lining that we can take from this devastating spill, I hope that it will be a wakeup call for America to get serious about pursuing clean, renewable sources of energy right here at home," he said.
"Last June, the House passed a bill to create clean energy jobs here in America, protect consumers, reduce pollution and help free us from our dangerous dependence on dirty foreign fuels while ensuring our national security," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Moving forward, we must complete this legislation and invest in a clean energy future founded on American innovation and the skill of our workers. And we must harness the power of the sun, wind, soil and our natural resources to fuel our future."
Meanwhile, Republicans continued to blast Obama for using the Gulf spill to push his political agenda.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday that Obama faced a defining moment where he "keeps us out of politics or he jumps in with both feet."
"I think anything outside of: Here's what we're doing to plug the leak, here's the effort that we've mobilized for the cleanup, here's who I've asked to be put in charge, and here's what BP's committed to do to make sure that reimbursements are made -- I think outside of that, you're getting into politics and it has no business playing a part of a crisis like this," Burr said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she agreed with Obama's calls for a prompt cleanup and compensation for victims of the spill. "What I wanted to hear though, and the people of the Gulf expected to hear, was specifics about how we are going to do those things," she said. "Instead the president undermined our common goals by echoing those in Congress who want to use this incident to pass 'comprehensive energy and climate legislation,' the new code for cap and trade."
Republican leaders of the House and Senate accused Obama of using the oil spill in the Gulf to push a "national energy tax," which they consider completely unrelated to the spill.
"To suggest in any way that this oil spill is a rationale for a national energy tax, which has nothing whatsoever to do with this horrendous environmental catastrophe, is something I don't think that many of my members are likely to buy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday.
"I sincerely hope that the Obama administration will not try to use a crisis made worse by its own failings to score political points on the backs of Americans living and working on the Gulf Coast," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). "This moment demands a call to action based on our shared interest in stopping this leak, cleaning up this mess and finding out what went wrong."
Reporters Patrick Reis and Katherine Ling contributed.