by Richard Ottinger

The one politically feasible prospect for action on climate change – one that would surely reduce greenhouse gas emissions while bolstering the American energy supply mix – remains a clean energy standard.  Energy legislation that includes such a standard is entirely achievable in this session of Congress, despite the discouraging presence of special interests, divisive politics, and general inertia. Now that President Obama has expressed support for such a standard in his State of the Union address, advocates hope that Congress can agree on the parameters of a deal that would bring such a vision to reality.Essentially, a clean energy standard requires utilities to generate or purchase a specified percentage of their power from clean (i.e. less polluting) sources of energy, with the understanding that “clean energy” is a more liberal standard than a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) (which is usually limited to only renewable sources of energy). This clean energy standard, in addition to renewables, would extend to nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), “efficient natural gas”, and other types of alternative – but not necessarily “cleaner” – forms of energy. Moreover, the clean energy standard legislation would provide yet another opportunity for the “mother’s milk of politics” (read: lobbying, kickbacks, and backroom deals), a motivating factor that seems to be the chief driver of political action today.

Despite these caveats, a clean energy standard is undoubtedly an improvement over the current state of energy affairs. It has been relentlessly proven that national security is closely tied to the vulnerability of oil supplies – resources that have already peaked, according to many reports. As costs rise exponentially to reflect surging demand in emerging economies, supply shortages will become increasingly frequent and further drive prices skyward. Given the fact that these dwindling reserves are often located within unstable countries that are openly hostile to American interests, the availability of alternative energy resources can truly be an engine of profitable job creation and economic innovation.

The New York Times/Greenwire article included above gives an excellent analysis of the opportunities for passage of a major energy bill in Congress this year. The article outlines the dilemma facing environmental advocates – whether support for measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (through either energy efficiency improvements or renewable capacity) necessitates similar endorsement of environmentally questionable options (such as nuclear power expansion and “clean coal” initiatives). This scenario promises a very complex deal in order to achieve a resolution that all parties will support.