OPINION: Greening the White House

When it comes to US energy policy, May was an ugly month. Yet beneath the surface, seismic changes are occurring that speak to the possibility of more inspiring times ahead.

Anyone clinging to a shred of hope that Republicans might come to their senses on energy issues would have had that destroyed by the collapse of an energy-efficiency bill in the Senate.

The grossly watered down bill was remarkable not for its potential effectiveness but for its ridiculously uncontroversial nature. Efficiency is the one energy-related goal that politicians across the spectrum can usually agree on.

The bill would have gently nudged homeowners, businesses and the federal government towards higher efficiency standards — often on a voluntary basis — in a country reviled globally for its gluttonous consumption. Yet Senate Republicans, including many who had previously supported the legislation, ultimately refused to pass it.

Against this backdrop of scorched-earth obstructionism, no-one should be surprised that the far more controversial production tax credit also ran aground in the Senate, leaving the US wind industry mired in an all-too familiar tale of uncertainty.

As a taste of further treats to come, Marco Rubio, the boyish senator from hurricane-prone Florida — considered a darling of the political Right and widely expected to run for president in 2016 — gave an interview in which he expressed the view that there is nothing the US can do to mitigate global climate change, and to try would be pointlessly “devastating” to the economy.

If all this were playing out against a lackadaisical or cowardly political Left, it would be the time for despair. But something interesting is happening on the other side of the aisle.

Many renewables advocates have been disappointed by Barack Obama’s largely hands-off approach to climate and energy policy.

Until now, the president and many in his Democratic Party have typically expressed support for wind and solar through the filter of an “all of the above” energy policy, one that lauds “cleaner” natural gas as a bridging technology to an unspecified future. Very few senior Democrats have the courage to espouse a renewables-led vision.

But increasingly, Obama appears to view climate as a key legacy issue, and one where he can make considerable progress in his final two years in office, even in the teeth of what may be Republican control of Congress.

There is plenty that Obama can do over the next two years that would be hugely beneficial for renewables.

At home, his executive branch can speed up permitting for green mega-projects on federal land, or for interstate transmission projects, not to mention simply talking up the industry and its accomplishments.

Abroad, expect him to commit time and effort to achieving a major UN climate deal in Paris next year — one that does not require congressional sign-off.

Even more encouraging, perhaps, are indications of what may come in the post-Obama years. Last month, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, called for “a future free of fossil fuels [and] an economy driven by home-grown, independent sources of renewable energy”, adding: “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, but because humankind imagined a better way.”

It is unheard of for someone with a viable shot at the presidency to speak about the economy in completely fossil-fuel-free terms.

That some Democrats are finally screwing up their courage doesn’t mean change will come overnight. It does mean, however, that American voters may at last have a better choice than “all of the above”. 

Karl-Erik Stromsta is Recharge’s North America managing editor