Inside Hillary Clinton’s climate and energy plans

By Anne C. Mulkern | 05/09/2016 07:24 AM EDT

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, if elected president, likely wouldn’t prioritize a sweeping rule on climate, her campaign chairman, John Podesta, said Friday.

The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination would want to work with Congress on climate action, Podesta said. But she’d probably focus on smaller legislative actions and employ executive powers, given Republican opposition to many global warming measures.

"I’d like to see a price on carbon, but I’m more optimistic about persuading Congress to support more investment in clean energy, more investment in energy efficiency, more investment in research and development," Podesta said. "These are things that can create jobs and economic opportunity" and therefore could gain support.


They also achieve carbon emissions cuts "in the real world right away," he added.

Podesta spoke during a daylong conference at Stanford University in California on "Setting the Climate Agenda for the Next U.S. President." Others at the event included the Obama administration’s former Department of Energy secretary, Steven Chu, and James Connaughton, who chaired the Council on Environmental Quality for President George W. Bush.

The event was framed as examining the climate agenda for the next president, "regardless of who wins the election in November." Many of those who spoke, however, talked about what Clinton would do or should do on warming, or when they referred to the next president, talked about "she."

Those who mentioned probable Republican nominee Donald Trump said that it’s unlikely he’d take action to combat climate change.

Trump has said he would abolish U.S. EPA, that he would revoke all of President Obama’s executive actions and "that he reserves the right to change his mind," said Bruce Cain, political science professor at Stanford.

"I’m not sure how you would organize for President Trump" on the climate issue, Cain said.

But Cain cautioned against too much Democratic optimism.

"While the odds are very high that Clinton will win the election, I will say as a political scientist it’s not going to be as easy as it seems," Cain said.

Price on carbon ‘not that simple’

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who worked in the Reagan administration, early in the day during the event called for a price on carbon.

"I have long advocated a revenue-neutral carbon tax," Shultz said. "It’s just there to level the playing field. Because you want sources of energy to compete equally and to bear the costs of what they produce."

Podesta said he respects Shultz but that "it’s just not that simple."

Even if Democrats win the White House, and potentially gain control of the Senate, they’re unlikely to take over leadership in the House. Given that, Podesta said, agreement on major climate action is improbable.

"If lightning strikes, and there’s the possibility of maybe forging an agreement with Congress, I’d certainly try and take it," Podesta said. "But I would think I would concentrate on the Hill with more what can we get done, where we can find some common ground, on the investment side, on the clean energy side, etc., and not go for a grand attack on an economywide program."

Another area where the next president could work with Congress to combat climate change is eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, Podesta said. He didn’t specify which ones, but said that "you have to be as ambitious as you can to make that possible. To do that, you have to be able to persuade Congress that it’s in their interest to play ball."

Podesta formerly advised the Obama administration on climate and environmental issues. He said Clinton also would look at executive actions.

"The experience of the Obama administration shows that a successful climate agenda requires a senior, serious point person in the White House to drive the agencies to do all that they can," Podesta said.

That includes using federal budgets and "the regulatory levers to drive change," reaching out to the private sector and working with the federal science agencies. It needs to be developed during the transition to the new presidency and in the earliest days, he said.

A ‘map room’ in the White House

In terms of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, even though there is a Supreme Court stay on that proceeding, the next president could "encourage states like California to front-load deployment." The next president also should push states "to be more ambitious in their plans and to go as early as possible," Podesta said.

Also, he said, the government needs to do more on methane emissions, both those from oil and gas wells and throughout the distribution system. There could also be actions "to reform fossil fuel leasing" on public lands, including "land-use changes and changes in how we manage our oceans," Podesta said.

Clinton would want to look at adaptation issues, he said. She’s talked about creating a climate map room in the White House "to be able to see where effects are taking place" and to help in developing strategies, Podesta said.

There would also need to be international diplomatic efforts to hold India and China to commitments they made at the U.N. climate conference in Paris last year, he said.

Speaking on a different panel, former DOE Secretary Chu also talked about China and India.

More work needs to be done on carbon capture, Chu said. That process would be used on oil refining, steel and cement manufacturing, "you name it," he said. Chu added that "if it’s not acceptable to India and China, it’s not going to work."

Carbon capture currently is not economically viable, said Chu, who is a professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford.

"There’s a great deal of research that can be done," Chu said. "There’s great opportunity."

Keeping research alive to drive down costs of the latest advancements is important, Chu said.

For example, Tesla Motors Inc.’s upcoming mainstream Model 3 is projected to start at $35,000, though Chu said it probably will be closer to $45,000 but that over time the price will fall.

"When it gets to $25,000, then it’s going to be mass market," Chu said. "It’s not even going to be a debate anymore."

But there will need to be a new generation of batteries, he said.

Let the free market decide

Republican Connaughton, now president and CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies, offered suggestions for the next president in the form of a briefing to "President Ryan." He referred to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who some hope will be picked over Trump as the Republican nominee, though Ryan has said he isn’t interested.

Connaughton said the president "can and must get the government out of what it does badly" and should focus the government "on what it must and does do very well."

Since 1998, Connaughton said, more than 100 federal and state mandates have been put in place dealing with greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Those include market-based ones like cap and trade in California.

It involves $150 billion in incentives, he said, but "when you incentive everything, it seems to me you incentivize nothing." You’re transferring money away from the tax revenue side with "everybody benefitting," but nothing additional is accomplished.

Connaughton said that the political divide on climate won’t be addressed until there’s a legislative debate and vote "on how far we want to go on greenhouse gas abatement." He added that "as a market-driven guy, what I care about most is the number going down."

There are so many mandates, "almost all of them overlap," and some compete with each other, Connaughton said. There needs to be pre-emption of all overlapping mandates, he said, and that will "unleash innovation."

"Let the market figure out how to get the lowest emissions," Connaughton said. He added that a sustainable long-term solution to climate change must include expanded nuclear power.

If the $150 billion in tax incentive money he referred to earlier is freed up, Connaughton said, "take half of that, and quintuple the federal R&D [research and development] budget, and take the other half and pay down the debt."