Why Clean Energy Is the Key to America's Global Leadership

Despite the president’s lofty rhetoric about the “promise of renewable energy” during last night’s the State of the Union address, it is clear that the administration will not be able to achieve its more expansive environmental goals any time soon.

In light of last Monday’s announcement that White House coordinator for energy and climate change policy, Carol M. Browner will soon be leaving the administration, it is clear that going forward, the Obama administration will have to pare back its ambitious environmental goals over the next two years.

Indeed, having led the Obama administration’s failed effort last year to enact clean energy legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emission and move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil, Browner’s departure suggests, as President Obama himself has acknowledged, that it is very unlikely that any significant climate change legislation will be enacted over the next two years.

A 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court does indeed give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a legal mandate to protect the environment and control greenhouse gas emissions and the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act – though the GOP continues to challenge this authority.

Indeed, the new Republican majority in the House has already begun efforts to cut funding for clean energy development, delay EPA regulations requiring polluting industries to clean up their act, change the Clean Air Act so that it could no longer be used as a basis for controlling greenhouse gasses, and block funding needed to enforce the EPA regulations.

While the president spoke compellingly Tuesday night about the need to “reinvent our energy policy” --setting a new goal that “by 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources” -- it is clear that an over-intrusive clean energy strategy that focuses on costly cap-and-trade regulations whose costs exceeds its benefits is simply not a viable option for the Obama Administration.

The question is: how can the Obama administration protect the environment and stimulate clean energy development with a clean energy policy that creates jobs, facilitates innovation and generates economic development without eviscerating the situation with expensive and inefficient regulations, busting the budget or increasing taxes substantially?

President Obama wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that over the next two years, it will be his mission to strike a balance between the cost and the benefit of regulations -- to “root out regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb,” and replace them with socially, environmentally, and economically beneficial regulations that will “make our economy stronger and more competitive, while meeting our fundamental responsibilities to one another.”

Here is what such an agenda would look like:

Investment: By expanding innovation and the development of renewable energy, America can become a leader in clean energy technologies. We can facilitate innovation and spur economic growth by investing in research and development in clean energy industries and ending subsidies for oil companies.

Economic Competition: By investing in green technologies -- wind and solar energy, nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas-- we can become more competitive in the global marketplace and reclaim our position as the leader in the global marketplace. For instance, while China has aggressively worked to become the global leader in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, the U.S. accounts for just $1.6 billion of the world’s $29 billion market for solar panels.

Energy Independence: Energy independence will improve our national security and grow our economy. An energy policy that expands our use of natural gas, nuclear energy and alternative energy such as solar and wind will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Cost: With a comprehensive and responsible clean energy policy we can reduce pollution, conserve resources, and above all, cut costs.

Recent analyses by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy show that refineries can cut global-warming pollutants and save money by making their processes more energy efficient.

Protecting Small Businesses: The one thing that we cannot do with environmental regulation is destroy growth. That is why protecting small businesses must be an integral component of any clean energy policy.

The EPA’s GHG tailoring rule offers a common sense approach to permitting GHG emissions. Under the rule, GHG permitting will focus initially on the largest industrial sources, while shielding millions of small businesses that make up the vast majority of the U.S. economy.

With a clean energy policy that facilitates economic growth, protects small business, cuts costs, facilitates energy independence and makes the United States more competitive in the global marketplace – the Obama administration may very well get the bipartisan support necessary for a comprehensive clean energy policy.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of the new book "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.Arielle Alter Confino contributed to this piece.