Obama stresses investment but policy battles loom

President Obama devoted a major chunk of last night's speech before Congress to expanding investment in alternative energy and efficiency but steered clear of looming Capitol Hill battles that go far beyond how much money to spend and where.

Obama used his primetime address to tout renewable energy investment as part of the "foundation for lasting prosperity" and blasted past energy policy as an underlying factor behind the nation's economic woes.

"We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy," Obama said. "Yet we import more oil today than ever before."

The president's focus on energy investment and endorsement of cap-and-trade legislation last night are simply the latest signs the Obama administration plans to be active on those fronts this year, analysts said.

"For something like that to have been given the first priority after he talked about the stimulus and economic recovery generally really says something," said Tim Brennan, a senior fellow for the environmental think tank Resources for the Future. "That is not an accident, that it gets such a priority. It must reflect a really sincere interest on his part and the part of his administration."


Bryan Mignone, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, agreed. "It definitely sounds like he was not interested in putting this off in spite of the other challenges," Mignone said. "If anything, it was a message of urgency he was trying to send to congressional leaders."

But while Obama laid the groundwork for a year of action on energy policy, his message of urgency generally avoided a head-on discussion of several sticky policy issues that will face Congress, including measures that wade into competing regional interests and potential state-federal conflicts.

To be sure, Obama's speech ventured into perhaps the biggest, most complex energy fight of all: plans to implement a cap-and-trade plan that curbs emissions of heat-trapping gases.

However, in the nearer-term, lawmakers are mulling several proposals aimed at speeding deployment of renewable energy. Democrats want to enact a nationwide renewable electricity standard that would require utilities to supply escalating amounts of power from sources like wind and solar energy.

The administration must also confront questions of whether and where new offshore drilling may be authorized following last year's lapse in longstanding leasing bans that had covered most coastal regions.

Elsewhere, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to strengthen the federal government's hand in siting new transmission lines (E&ENews PM, Feb. 23).

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the address was not a time for policy details. "This was not really the kind speech to deal with those specifics. That will come later. This was a speech designed, I think, to set out the goals for what we want to achieve and to inspire Americans to rise to those challenges," she said. "It was designed to set out a vision for where we need to go and it is up to Congress to put the specifics on that vision."

But Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), while applauding Obama's focus on energy, said the speech could have used more detail about the future of U.S. energy production. "I thought he should have gone into where we are going to produce more if it domestically and having a broader portfolio, a true discussion of where you are going to get it, than what he went into, but he didn't," he said.

Brownback noted renewables remain a small part of the U.S. energy portfolio and said there is a need to discuss the role of coal and nuclear power as baseload energy sources, as well as domestic oil and gas production.

Obama did repeat his pledge that the United States would invest $15 billion annually to develop technologies such as wind and solar, next-wave biofuels, "clean coal" and efficient cars.

The administration has vowed to double renewable energy supply over three years, boosted from billions of dollars in the recently enacted stimulus measure, and greatly expand transmission to carry renewable sources to populated areas.

Obama also called for the United States to claim a larger share of the renewable and efficiency technology markets, decrying the notion that plug-in hybrids rolling off U.S. assembly lines would run on Korean-made batteries. "I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders -- and I know you don't either," he said.

Dems, GOP draw conclusions

Overall, the focus on energy and climate drew a very enthusiastic response from Democrats, who hope to translate their larger majorities into long-sought policy victories in areas like a renewables mandate.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the speech's heavy emphasis on energy issues was "exciting."

"Congress has to paint the details in the picture that the president framed, but those details are clear. It is a renewable electricity standard, it is carbon capture and sequestration, it is new biofuels technology investments, it is finding the holy grail of a battery that gives you a 100 mile range and recharges easily," he said.

"He gets it," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said of Obama's call to reduce emphasis on foreign oil. "I think he understands as well that we need to become energy self-sufficient if we're going to reduce our reliance on foreign oil."

But Republicans also quickly emphasized the role of traditional energies.

"We need to develop alternative and renewable energy sources, but we also must make sure that any national energy policy includes provisions that encourage increased domestic production of the resources that we currently rely upon to heat our homes, power our vehicles and grow our economy," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in a statement.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in the formal Republican response to the speech, also said energy policy should include increased domestic drilling.

Some of Obama's various energy goals will come more easily than others. Joe Romm, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, said in an e-mail exchange before the speech that putting a price on carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan will be the toughest challenge.

Also, Romm said, a lot of power grid expansion is needed to carry wind from the Midwest and solar thermal power from the Southwest. But, he added, "all the interested parties want to solve this problem. And it doesn't have to be done overnight."

Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.

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