Energy Policy

Environmental policy expert Learner discusses future of renewables policy after elections

How will super PACs influence key Senate races heading into November? During today's OnPoint, Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, explains why he believes super PACs may begin shifting resources to tight Senate races come October. He also discusses the future of the production tax credit for wind energy during Congress' lame duck session.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Howard Learner, executive director and president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Howard, thanks for coming back on the show.

Howard Learner: Good to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: Howard, there's a fresh push here in Washington in Congress among House Republicans to let the production tax credit for wind energy expire at the end of this year. What impact is the threat of this policy's expiration having on the industry?

Howard Learner: You know, I think you're seeing the wind industry, and I come from the windy mid-West, getting extraordinarily frustrated with gridlock in the Congress. You know, if you're in Iowa, the second largest wind power state in the country, 4500 megawatts of wind power, billions of dollars of economic investment, 7,000 jobs, the congressional delegation, both Republicans and Democrats are saying to Congress get moving and extend the production tax credit. If you're a manufacturer in Ohio or in Michigan, an old-line Rust Belt manufacturer that manufactures the equipment that goes into the wind turbines, I mean this is something that's business. This is putting people to work. So I think you're seeing a lot of frustration, not just in the wind industry, but in the manufacturing industry, among political leaders, both sides of the aisle saying it's time to put people back to work. Let's figure out a reasonable solution with the production tax credit, extend it in a reasonable way. Let's move forward.

Monica Trauzzi: Wind is not a new technology. This PTC was first established in 1992. So, why does the industry continue to still need this type of assistance and at what point will they no longer need it?

Howard Learner: You know, it's a fair question, but there are really two answers to it. The first is our energy system is full of subsidies for oil, for gas, for nuclear, for coal. The whole system is subsidized, so to say any -- pick any one and say we're going to get rid of your subsidies, but the others will continue, just doesn't work. It's not fair. It's not a level playing field. Secondly, a number of people in the wind industry have said give us a glide path to phase it out, but keep it in place for little bit while longer. Let's seize the opportunity to move wind power forward in this country. It is low polluting, it keeps people to work and it helps to remove some of the dependence we have on other oil sources.

Monica Trauzzi: Your prediction moving forward of where this goes at the end of the year? Will they extend it?

Howard Learner: End of the year or the beginning of the next Congress, production tax credit will be extended, maybe for two years or a year and a half while Congress looks at an overall set of energy subsidies. But there are a lot of people whose jobs depend on the production tax credit going forward, manufacturing companies, wind power companies, and let's not put that at risk. There probably needs to be an examination of an overhaul, a real study of how do we look at all these energy subsidies and how do we deal with them all on a fair basis as part of the tax code? But you can't just pick and choose one and say get rid of this subsidy while the others continue. Extend the production tax credit, let it stay in effect while the overall re-examination goes forward.

Monica Trauzzi: You recently wrote an opinion piece on the role you believe Super PACs will be playing in some key Senate races as we head towards November. And you actually believe that if candidate Romney doesn't perform well in the first debate on October 3, that we'll see the Super PACs sort of moving their money to some of these critical Senate races. Talk a bit about that.

Howard Learner: You know, I think that's absolutely correct. What we're seeing right now is the Super PACs are ideological and they're also run by people who are very hard-nosed, smart, tough political operatives. And thus far, Mr. Romney's numbers are not persuasive that he can become president. You know, different polling, different predictions, but all of it has President Obama, if the election were held today, winning by a fairly significant electoral vote margin. Of course the election isn't being held today, it's being held November 6, a lot of things can happen in between. But let's be practical about it. If after the October 3 debate the polling shows that Mr. Romney hasn't moved the numbers, I think what we're going to see is a lot of the Republican-oriented Super PACs saying control of the Senate is absolutely vital. Republicans thought they'd be able to take control of the Senate, 23 seats Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, only 10 Republican seats up for play. It's not quite playing out that way. A number of the smaller states, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana have very, very close Senate races. Look for the Super PAC money to move in a very big way away from the presidential. Not dis-investing totally, but a lot of that money flowing to some small states that have absolutely critical Senate races. And when you're in a small state those dollars can go a very long way, get out the vote, mailings, TV ad buying. North Dakota, you know, that's a close election and you're dealing with a fairly small state in terms of media markets.

Monica Trauzzi: And in those smaller states, what could the results of those Senate races mean for things like renewable energy?

Howard Learner: It means if President Obama is reelected to a second term, whether he has a Congress that he can work with in crafting compromises and solutions, or whether you have a more ideological House and a Senate that unify together and say we're going to try to stop the president from moving an agenda in the second term, control of the Senate and the key committees is absolutely vital. Republicans saw an opportunity, because of the mix of races that were up in this election cycle, to take over the Senate. It hasn't quite played out that way. Senator Snowe retiring in Maine, probable loss of a seat. A couple of seats the Republicans counted upon in Missouri and Indiana are a little bit more up for grabs than they would have been forecast. But you just have a lot of very, very close races in which North Dakota, Montana, Indiana and some of the other states, where it can well be that a few thousand votes will determine who wins. And in a close Senate that can shift the majority or determine the majority between the Democrats and Republicans.

Monica Trauzzi: Mitt Romney has said he would roll back many of the regulations that have come on the books during the Obama administration. But when it comes to clean air standards, how feasible is that actually and wouldn't some kind of congressional intervention be required in order to roll back some of these regulations?

Howard Learner: You know, there's a legal question, there's a policy question and then there's a public question. As a matter of law, the Clean Air Act exists. Unless the statute is changed, EPA can't simply decide we didn't like what's been done so far. We're going to change that tomorrow. There's a process by which regulations can be changed. It takes about 18 months to begin with, but as a simple matter, whether it's President Obama or President Romney, the Clean Air Act has to be implemented. It has to be applied. Certainly, an EPA under President Romney versus a President Obama could be different around the edges and even different in significant ways in terms of how the regulations move forward. But it can't be that a President Romney would simply say we're going to ignore the Clean Air Act. It won't go forward. That requires congressional action. And, thus far, what we've seen in Congress, at least with the current membership, is a lot of noise, but no action. Senator Inhofe, Senator Rand Paul have both tried in different ways to roll back key sections of the Clean Air Act and they haven't gotten the votes. Now, we'll see what happens with the November elections. Maybe the memberships of the Senate will shift, but unless the filibuster rule changes, unless there are dramatic shifts in the Senate, it seems unlikely that the Senate will be in a position to overturn some of the Clean Air Act standards coming out of the administration. And finally, that's not publicly popular. Let's face it, there's more than 70 percent public support for stronger Clean Air Act protections that protect public health, as well as our environment. A President Romney will be looking at that as president, not as a candidate Romney.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show, nice to see you again.

Howard Learner: Glad to join you and see you again.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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