Reporters Roundtable:

E&E's Geman, Samuelsohn preview top energy and environment stories of 2009

As Congress begins a new session and Washington prepares to usher in a new administration, expectations are high for movement on climate and clean energy legislation in 2009. During today's OnPoint, E&E Senior Reporters Ben Geman and Darren Samuelsohn preview the energy and environment stories that will likely dominate the headlines in 2009. Geman and Samuelsohn discuss the upcoming economic stimulus package, which is expected to feature clean energy provisions. They also talk about a 2009 energy package and preview the year ahead for domestic climate discussions.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today for a reporters roundtable are E&E senior reporters Ben Geman and Darren Samuelsohn. Thanks for joining me today guys.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Ben Geman: No problem.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, high expectations for energy and environment issues going into this next session of Congress. We've already seen the first casualty of the incoming administration however with Bill Richardson bowing out as Commerce nominee. And he has a strong energy bend and it was thought that he would bring an extra push to the alternative energy movement. So how do you think him not being in that position changes things on the alternative energy front or does it change things?

Ben Geman: Well, I don't think it will change much insofar as what the policies of the administration are. I mean those are set by many different agencies and, of course, the White House. And as far as what the sort of core goals are around renewable energy, around reducing dependence on fossil fuels and so forth, I don't think that will change. But, you know that said, Richardson, when he was announced as the Commerce nominee, he talked about how excited he was to be part of this push for green jobs is the way they put it. And you know this gets to the fact that the Obama team and a lot of people in Congress said, well, at this point have sort of seamlessly, in a way, linked their economic and their energy agendas. So, what Richardson talked about was using the Commerce post to try and sort of push for, you know, greater deployment of some of these types of technologies. And, you know, there certainly is a role there are for the Commerce Department with things like technology transfer missions to other countries. So, there's a fair amount they do there and, as you point out, he was somebody who is quite experienced in these issues. He had been the Secretary of Energy under President Clinton. So sure, on that score it's a bit of a loss, but as far as what are the kind of core goals and policies going to be, I don't think it changes anything that much.

Monica Trauzzi: And Democrats would like the upcoming stimulus package to be bipartisan, but we're already seeing riffs on some of the core elements of the package. We're hearing now that a big focus is going to be on tax cuts. What are the prospects for this being a so-called green stimulus, as a lot of people are calling for, and what are the clean energy provisions that you're hearing are going to be part of this stimulus?

Ben Geman: Well, as you point out, there is this sort of an idea of linking the kind of greening of the economy to job creation and recovery and there haven't been a huge number of details yet. What Obama has said explicitly, so far, is that there's going to be an important provision of the package that will look to increase substantially the efficiency of federal buildings, which is a very, very big energy user and often energy waster. There will be, I would expect, other energy provisions. What exactly they'll be I'm not so clear on, but you've seen a lot of ideas start to circulate. So, for example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus has said he wants to see some renewable energy tax provisions in the legislation. Majority Leader Harry Reid has talked about the need for transmission to bring renewables from kind of generation points to population centers, ideas like the smart grid. But as far as what will be in there precisely and what will be sort of left on the cutting room floor is a pretty open question right now.

Monica Trauzzi: Right and the smart grid has been getting a lot of attention, but there's some question as to whether that would really provide the short-term benefits that a stimulus, by definition, needs to provide. It's sort of more the long-term project.

Ben Geman: Yeah, yes and no, but I think if you look at the way that the Obama transition team and the president-elect himself is talking about this stimulus package, they're saying, look, we need do both the sort of shorter-term jolt that they're looking for, but he also then quickly says but this package will also have provisions that will sort of, you know, lay the groundwork for a longer-term recovery and longer-term economic growth. So, again, while there still aren't a lot of details yet, I don't think that a project being "shovel ready" is going to necessarily be the threshold for either making it in or being left out. And so I think a lot of that is still pretty up in the air as well.

Monica Trauzzi: And President-elect Obama said that he would like this bill to be on his desk day one, as soon as he's in office. Are those expectations little too high? Is that a little lofty?

Ben Geman: I think so. Yeah, absolutely, I mean the President-elect is meeting on Capitol Hill Monday with congressional leaders, but already, over the weekend, you saw Majority Leader in the House Denny Hoyer saying it looks like now February is a much more likely timeframe, you know, where he said he'd like to see something on the president's desk perhaps by the president's day time frame, which is about the middle of the month. So yeah, it's absolutely slipped a bit.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, switching gears to climate, expectations are high that there's going to be this major shift on climate from the previous administration. But the economic issues that we've been seeing have definitely thrown a wrench into the plans that people had six months ago for how climate discussions would be going. So how far do you think the domestic climate discussions are going to go? How do you think the climate story is going to play out over 2009?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, I mean the expectations have to be big after the last eight years under President Bush, but exactly what Obama is capable of accomplishing in his first year, a lot of it will be sort of from the highest levels up. I mean you're going to see everything from the Defense Department to the EPA to the Commerce Department thinking about climate change in ways that maybe they weren't thinking about it over the course of the last eight years. So I think you're going to see things like a national security review with respect to climate change. You're going to see things like the federal regulations of greenhouse gas emissions start to move at the U.S. EPA and then you're going to see the leadership on Capitol Hill, probably from the Obama administration, trying to enact mandatory cap-and-trade law and maybe to do that in the next…I would say not in 2009, but probably thinking that this is something that Obama would hope to sign before midterm elections in 2010.

Monica Trauzzi: And so using the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions, that's still on of the table? I mean, that's been getting a lot of opposition, but that's still on the table and that's still a major consideration?

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah, I mean President Bush really, you know, has set this one up for Obama to hit out of the ballpark. The Supreme Court ordered, in March of 2007, that EPA has to go back to the drawing board and re-figure out the endangerment finding issue of whether or not you can link climate change to public health. And that endangerment finding decision has been sitting on the shelf in the EPA for the last year or so now. So a lot of people think Obama will come in and immediately maybe issue that endangerment finding, maybe bundle it together with the California waiver, which is something that's been sitting there that the Bush administration rejected. So you could maybe see sort of on a couple of different levels Obama, through the EPA, going after motor vehicle emissions, sort of imposing that California standard on the entire country. And then, with the endangerment finding, that prompts a whole series of possible EPA regulations from stationary sources, from power plants, all the way down to manufacturers, chemical plants to appliances and energy efficiency gains. So I mean the possibilities just at the EPA alone are huge and then that sort of circles back and that's going to freak a lot of people out up in the business community, Republicans I would say as well who are opposed to regulations. And so you might see that as the lever to try and move Capitol Hill on cap-and-trade legislation. You know, people are saying right now that Obama probably does have the votes in the House and even in the Senate to move a cap-and-trade bill come 2010. I mean the votes are there with the Democrats and some of those moderate Republicans. He's going to have a little bit of work to do with the moderate Democrats, but the votes are probably there if he can successfully craft a package using that EPA leverage. You know, he is required under the Supreme Court precedent to move this process forward.

Monica Trauzzi: So, in terms of what we're going to see coming out of the committees what have you heard so far from the chairman about how they're going to be focusing in on this issue?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, they've being very coy at this point.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: Senator Boxer did suggest that she was going to introduce a bill in January, but actually moving a bill? I think people expect probably the attention will be in January on the confirmation hearings, February we're going to be focused on the State of the Union and the budget. That's, I think, when the gears start to maybe move, where publicly we're going to see things happen. I know that Boxer's staff has been working, you know, trying to get things sort of lined up post the Senate debate from last summer and the Lieberman-Warner debate. So they have that templates and they do want to try and craft a bill that's going to have those 12, 15, the gang of 12 or 15, whatever the number is of moderate Senate Democrats that will come on board. And then, over in the House, I mean we really haven't heard much yet from Henry Waxman, the new incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But you can clearly expect that he's going to try and move a bill and probably move it a lot faster than John Dingell would have. Again, in terms of timeframe, no one is really saying. They were very coy when they were in Poland at the climate negotiation. Staffers for everybody were there. They wouldn't really talk about scheduling, even though they were asked about it in 15 or 20 different ways.

Monica Trauzzi: And a lot depends on where the economy is nine or 12 months from now.

Darren Samuelsohn: It does and it doesn't. I hear people saying now that the economy is down as low as it can go. So how many more times can you really kick it? I mean at this point, you know, maybe something like this is exactly what America needs to sort of get thinking about sort of the bigger picture in terms of overhauling our energy policies. And who's going to want to oppose Barack Obama on something if he does want to make this one of his big Senator issues? That's a question that we'll be watching out closely for.

Ben Geman: You know, I also just don't think that they need a quick victory by any stretch of the imagination on a climate bill. I think they can afford to take their time in that a little bit and that won't prevent them from being able to sort of trying to claim some other victories kind of in that universe. I mean for example, as we've been discussing, there's going to be these energy provisions in the stimulus. In fact, over the weekend of the president-elect said, in his remarks about the economic plan, that we need to double renewable energy production, so he's sort of setting the stage for energy provisions there. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's going to be some forums for them to say we're moving our agenda forward on Capitol Hill and administratively even before they get around to actual floor action on a climate bill.

Darren Samuelsohn: And I think there's going to be an energy bill probably in the summer as well, that certainly sort of folds all this together.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, and on the energy bill we're hearing from Senator Bingaman that the RPS is going to bring it back and it's going to be a major focus. What are your expectations there? And then focusing in on a possible energy bill, what are you looking for as the major headlines that are going to come out of that?

Ben Geman: Yeah, I mean he's said that he wants to do a major energy bill fairly early, at least get it introduced fairly early in the new Congress. And there was a briefing, yeah, maybe a month and a half ago in which he sort of talked about how a renewable electricity standard, which has gotten kind of close to the finish line over the last few years, but not really, hasn't really happened. You know, that he would see this as, one, a priority, and, two, something that he sees as being more likely to pass with the expanded majorities for Democrats in the House and Senate. And from there he has talked about a whole series of other energy issues that he wants to take a look at, revisiting the operations of the loan guarantee program and some other priorities. So, you know, I think he finally sees an opportunity to move some things that he probably couldn't have in the pass Congress. So certainly RPS, I think, would be one of them.

Monica Trauzzi: And finally, Darren had mentioned how Chairman Waxman might change the tone on climate. How are you expecting he will change or impact the energy discussion?

Ben Geman: Well, Waxman, over the years, has been very, very critical of some of the energy policy decisions, both of the current administration, which is probably an understatement actually, as well as some things that have been done legislatively and with the administration's support. So I think you'd be perhaps looking for him to, at the very least, maybe do some hearings or maybe doing some legislation on some of these issues. I mean to take two examples, in the big energy bill of sort of 2005 there was something that gave fuel and gas industry exemptions from some Clean Water Act storm water permitting requirements for drilling operations for the construction of the drilling sites. And a second provision provided some exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is something that's very near and dear to Waxman, provided some exemptions from that for a type of natural gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing. So he's criticized those provisions over the years, whether he'd try to move to outright repeal of them I'm not sure. But those are sort of the types of things I think that would probably be sort of within his crosshairs. That said, he hasn't really spoken in any detail yet about what his exact energy agenda is.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, a lot to watch over the next year. I know we'll all be busy.

Darren Samuelsohn: Yes, we will.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for being here.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Ben Geman: Thanks.

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