C2ES's Diringer discusses future of policy and regulation after Obama speech

Did President Obama give Congress a clear directive on energy and climate in his State of the Union address? During today's OnPoint, Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, explains how Obama's remarks on climate and energy will influence policy and regulation in the near term. Diringer proposes some policy initiatives that could pass through Congress and advance the president's goals.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Elliot, it's great to have you back on the show.

Elliot Diringer: Thanks, great to be back.

Monica Trauzzi: Elliot, the president placed climate and energy very high up in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Do we risk maybe reading a bit too much into that though, because it's thought very broadly and widely that there are no legs for any kind of comprehensive climate or energy packages.

Elliot Diringer: You know, it's really important to be making the case right now. Not so long ago it seemed as if climate change, global warming were dirty words here in Washington. Even among those pressing for climate action, including the president, we heard a lot of talk about clean energy, energy security, green jobs, but barely a mention of climate change. As we saw over the past year, record heat, drought worst in half a century, record wildfires, and of course, Hurricane Sandy, climate change is asserting itself with some very costly consequences for farmers, for coastal communities, for our economy. So we really can't afford to keep ignoring it, so it was really great to hear the president put it front and center and make the strong case for action first in his inaugural address and then again in the State of the Union.

Monica Trauzzi: He's making the case, but to who? Is this for the American people or is it for Congress?

Elliot Diringer: I think first and foremost it is for the American people, because while the polls suggest that most Americans think it's a problem, we haven't yet energized the American people about this, and the costs are starting to mount. It's possible now to connect the issue to everyday American lives, and it's important to do that. It's important to engage the public and make them aware, and in turn, they can then help make it easier for their elected leaders to actually begin to address the issue. So I think his primary audience is the American people.

Monica Trauzzi: So what he did was he challenged Congress and then he backed that up by saying, "If you don't act, them my administration will act, my cabinet will act." He didn't mention EPA specifically though, so what do you think we should expect from EPA moving forward on the air regulations, and could he have been alluding to other things as well?

Elliot Diringer: Well, as you say, he didn't speak directly to the question of EPA regulating power plant emissions, for instance. I think that was one of the two elephants in the room that he tiptoed around, the other being the Keystone Pipeline. But I think it was right for him to tell Congress, "Look, this is a shared responsibility. The onus is on both of us." And remind them that in fact there has been bipartisan support in the past for taking action. He referenced the cap and trade legislation from Senators McCain and Lieberman, which, interestingly, the president actually co-sponsored when it was reintroduced in 2007. So there's some history there. But it was just as important that he make clear that in the absence of congressional action, he has the tools to act on his own, and is prepared to act on his own. He didn't tell us a whole lot about what he has in mind there, but we would certainly expect that over the course of this year, EPA will take final action on the regulations as already proposed for new power plants, and will probably begin laying out a proposal for how to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants.

Monica Trauzzi: So on the Keystone pipeline, you mentioned it, I have to go further. I spoke with Congressman Lee Terry after the speech, he's the congressman from Nebraska, and he said the pipeline is doomed, as a result of the remarks that he heard from the president on Tuesday. What's your reaction? Do you think that based on his energy remarks we can read one way or the other on the future of the pipeline?

Elliot Diringer: No, I didn't hear anything in the remarks that really gave a clue, and it's not a surprise that he didn't speak to it. I think tipping his hand at this stage would have risked seriously antagonizing one side or the other. As it is, he was criticized by both sides for not mentioning it at all. I think it was interesting that immediately after the address there was a joint statement from nine national environmental organizations applauding the president's comments, emphasizing the need to reduce emissions from power plants, but not mentioning Keystone. So clearly this has become an important rallying cry for the activist wing of the environmental movement, but from our perspective, it's not at the top of the list of the things the president needs to do to address this issue. Blocking Keystone is not going to keep the oil sands from being developed. As long as the demand for oil remains high, that oil will find its way to market, and blocking Keystone isn't going to reduce demand or emissions here in the United States.

Monica Trauzzi: The president proposed an energy security trust fund, which would get revenues from oil and gas drilling. Does that make sense juxtaposed next to his conversation on climate?

Elliot Diringer: Sure, it absolutely makes sense to reinvest some of the revenue from oil and gas development into advancing low carbon technologies. And actually we saw a very similar proposal in the energy plan put forward by Senator Murkowski. So this is something that may in fact have bipartisan support. One of the proposals out there would focus primarily on transportation technologies, we think that's important, but it may be worth also considering some of the other technologies where we really need stronger research and development support, for instance, carbon capture and storage.

Monica Trauzzi: So to advance the discussion a bit, what can Congress reasonably do in the coming months to address some of the directives that the president gave?

Elliot Diringer: Well, one might still hope for some comprehensive action. I think cap and trade is off the table for now. But as Congress and the president try to come up with some long-term solutions for the country's fiscal challenges, we would strongly encourage them to take a close look at the option of a revenue neutral carbon tax. That would help address our climate and our fiscal challenges. But beyond that, the things that we would like to see from Congress would be continued R&D support for a whole range of technologies, continuing the wind tax credit, for instance, not forever, but for the time being; in the context of reauthorizations of the transportation and farm bills, for instance; there are steps that can be taken to promote clean energy and reduce emissions. So there are a range of options that Congress can help on, but I do think that the primary leadership, if Congress isn't prepared to act, is going to have to come from the president.

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

Elliot Diringer: Good to see you.

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

[End of Audio]



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