Debate on energy, climate bill to begin next week

At a summit on energy and climate policy at MIT, Obama administration leaders John Holdren and Carol Browner make the case for clean energy investments.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Congressional hearings will begin next Tuesday on an energy and climate bill that backers say will spur innovation in clean energy technologies and use the marketplace to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

One of the bill's sponsors, Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey, hosted a forum on clean energy policy and climate change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday where he announced the planned hearings.

Two influential figures in the Obama administration--Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, and John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy--also delivered speeches at the event, arguing for a sustained commitment to green technologies for economic and environmental reasons.

On the whole, speakers drew a picture of U.S. energy policy in the midst of profound change, driven by concerns over the economy, national security, and the environment. At the same time, they noted the daunting technical and political barriers to a transition to a low-carbon energy industry.

"The energy challenge we face is actually a more difficult challenge than putting a man on the moon was," said Holdren. "We have to do things that pervade our whole economy, not just of this country but around the world, in order to get it done to the degree that is required."

In his talk, Holdren summarized the latest climate science, saying that climate change is happening faster than predicted in previous scenarios done by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He said significant harm from climate change is already happening, such as effects on agriculture from changes in monsoons, more flooding from extreme precipitation, and pest population explosions that are affecting the timber industry in the U.S.

"Tipping points" that lead to rapid climate change, such as rapid ice-sheet disintegration in the poles and the release of gases trapped in permafrost, could "occur sooner rather than later," he said.

John Holdren, the director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaking about energy and climate policy at MIT Monday. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The most important technologies needed to mitigate climate change are efficiency, carbon capture and sequestration, advanced vehicles running on better batteries and fuel cells, and much cheaper solar cells.

He also said that the U.S. should develop approaches to nuclear energy that minimize risk from nuclear wastes. Work on nuclear fusion should also continue as well, he said

The options for policy--many of which have a positive economic impact--include removing barriers to the "low-hanging fruit" of efficiency technologies, such as improving consumer education and removing incentives for less efficient products, he said.

Subsidies for high-emitting energy sources should be removed and there should be continued government funding for research and development, he said. Other effective options to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere include slowing the rate of deforestation and modifying agriculture practices.

Large-scale geoengineering projects designed to cool the Earth could "conceivably" be done, he said, repeating an assertion he first made last week.

Energy investments
The stimulus package passed earlier this year had $59 billion in direct spending and tax incentives around energy efficient and clean energy, including plans to install 40 million smart electrical meters, loan guarantees for large wind and solar farms, and the installation of new transmission lines to carry renewable energy.

The Obama administration has also boosted spending on research and development, a move that MIT president Susan Hockfield said "represents the best strategy for long-term economic recovery and growth."

Two weeks ago, Markey and Energy and Commerce Committee co-chairman Rep. Henry Waxman presented a draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The proposed legislation seeks to send "a clear signal that the U.S. will be the leader, not the laggard, on clean energy technologies," said Markey.

Speakers at a symposium on clean energy policy at MIT. From left: Cambridge Energy Research Associates Chairman Daniel Yergin, Director of the MIT Energy Initiative Ernest Moniz, Assistant to the President on Energy and Climate Carol Browner, MIT President Susan Hockfield, and Rep. Edward Markey. Martin LaMonica/CNET

He said three members of the Obama administration--Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are scheduled to testify at hearings on the bill next week. The goal is to have the House vote on the bill before its August recess, and to have a bill signed into law this year before the next round of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Officials from fast-growing countries India and China have told him and other members of Congress that they expect the U.S. to lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions because the U.S. is a large polluter. The U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of global oil consumption but has only three percent of the population. "We can't preach temperance from the barstool," he said.

Policy challenges
Passage of a bill, however, that includes both energy provisions and climate regulations, is expected to be difficult. Residents of states that rely heavily on inexpensive but polluting coal for electricity have balked at the potential increase in electricity costs from putting a price on carbon emissions.

The bill intends to raise tens of billions of dollars by auctioning off polluting permits which can be traded in a cap-and-trade system. The money will be use to invest in energy technologies. There are also provisions to provide relief to people who see higher energy bills, and there are short-term exemptions for heavy-polluting industries, Markey said.

In her talk, Browner put current climate and energy policy initiatives in the context of previous environmental crises, including acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer.

In previous cases, there were people who said that regulations to address these problems would be too expensive or that the technology wasn't available. But in each instance, industry was able to find technical solutions, she said.

"For many years, we had a debate that somehow we had to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. History has shown that we don't have to chose and the two are intrinsically linked," Browner said.