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ENERGY: A Clean Break for Obama ENERGY: A Clean Break for Obama

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STATE OF THE UNION: ANALYSIS

ENERGY: A Clean Break for Obama

Updated at 8:24 a.m. on January 26.

President Obama will put clean-energy development at the center of his vision for a more competitive, centrist, and business-friendly administration going into the 2012 elections, according to the text of tonight's State of the Union speech.

 

In the speech, he laid out an energy agenda that allows him to stay true to his campaign pledges of promoting clean energy and tackling greenhouse gases, while closing the door on last year’s failed effort to pass a comprehensive and contentious “cap-and-trade” climate bill.

The president framed the energy proposals as a cornerstone needed to keep the United States competitive in the global market.

In a proposal aimed at bridging the steep divide between his environmentalist base and the new tea-party-backed congressional conservatives who say they want to slash government spending, the president proposes cutting billions of dollars in tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry and reinvesting that money into clean technology research.

 

He proposed setting a goal of producing 80 percent of U.S. electricity from clean sources such as solar and wind, but also nuclear, natural gas, and so-called “clean coal" by 2035.   

Both those ideas are centrist reworkings of earlier proposals that have failed to clear Congress.

The proposed “clean energy” standard represents a major move to the center -- and one that could draw significant support from moderate Republicans. Obama campaigned on the idea of mandating a renewable energy standard, requiring a ramp-up in production only in power sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Leading moderate Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have said they could support a “clean-energy standard” that includes nuclear and other low-emitting sources. Although leading Democrats have long resisted that “mixed-definition” effort, the president’s endorsement could pave the way for a modest breakthrough.

Finding middle ground on the proposal to move subsidies from the oil industry to clean technology could be trickier. Last year, the president’s budget request proposed cutting $35 billion over a decade in tax breaks to the oil industry. But even during the height of the Gulf of Mexico spill, Democratic efforts to enact a portion of those cuts with the aim of funneling the money into oil cleanup and regulation failed.

 

It’s far from clear whether the new version will gain traction in this Congress. Senior Republicans who have long been allied with the oil industry will continue to defend the tax breaks. Freshman spending hawks who support stripping all energy subsidies will hardly get behind the idea of cutting one set of subsidies while creating another.

But one longtime watcher of energy and environment policy said the proposal could create a middle ground for some new clean energy spending.

“We’re happy to see the president start with a high number [for new clean technology spending],” said Marchant Wentworth, a legislative liaison for the Union of Concerned Scientists.  “We will be trying to see if this translates back home for appropriators. What remains to be seen is if this round of appropriators are immune to this.”

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