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Energy czar: Businesses need signal on pollutants

Carol Browner, Obama's assistant on energy and climate, said U.S. industries that put a price on air pollutants will drive investments in cleaner technologies.

The Obama administration is pushing for a "comprehensive" energy and climate bill because it will provide the economic foundation to spur investment in clean-energy technologies, said Carol Browner, the president's assistant on energy and climate.

Browner, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was interviewed on Friday along with other business and political leaders at the Atlantic's First Draft of History conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The interview was streamed live online.

Carol Browner, assistant to the president on energy and climate change, speaking at MIT earlier this year. Martin LaMonica/CNET

She argued that U.S. businesses will invest more in clean-energy technologies once Congress passes a law with incentives for renewable energy and efficiency as well as a cap-and-trade system that limits heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

"The point is we have to get started, we have to send a signal to the marketplace that we are going to be dealing with these (greenhouse gas) emissions in a different way," she said.

The House narrowly passed an energy and climate billin May. The Senate earlier this week introduced its own version although passage of any combined bill is not expected before the end of this year. The timing is significant in international negotiations because the Copenhagen round of international climate negotiations will start in December this year.

A number of large companies and green technology start-ups continue to urge lawmakers to set up regulations that put a price on carbon emissions, with many business people preferring a cap-and-trade system. With a cap-and-trade, large polluters such as utilities can buy and sell permits to emit carbon to stay under a government-set cap, a system already used to reduce other air pollutants.

Passage of the bill in the Senate is far from certain with 60 votes needed. Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency went ahead with a program to see how carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from stationary sources, such as power plants and factories, would be regulated under the Clean Air Act. But that is not the route that the Obama administration prefers, Browner said.

"We want to tools so we can work with the business community to reduce these pollutants," Browner said. "Every time we've implemented environmental clean-air regulations, we've gotten solutions more quickly and at dramatically less cost than anticipated."

She said that a "piecemeal" approach to regulations will not create the certainty that businesses need to make investments in clean-energy technologies because the regulations create demand.

The process around the passage of Waxman-Markey worked because lawmakers addressed regional and competitive issues posed by a cap on carbon emissions. For example, special programs to address high-polluting industries and incentives for regions that rely heavily on coal were set up.

Some lawmakers are drawn to clean-energy technology policies out of concern that China will "best" the U.S. economically, she added.

In response to a question, she said that nuclear power has to be part of the U.S. energy future. "You can't rule out clean sources of fuel," she said. Energy storage, particularly for solar and wind, and smart appliances that lower household electricity usage are some of the most active areas of technology development, she said.