6 Things to Watch When Hillary Heads to Vegas

Clinton’s speech at Harry Reid’s energy summit could offer clues about her climate agenda.

Ben Geman and Jason Plautz
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Ben Geman Jason Plautz
Sept. 2, 2014, 11:04 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is about to give her first en­ergy and cli­mate speech of a pub­li­city tour that many be­lieve is the spring­board to a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

Clin­ton, the front-run­ner for the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nod if she runs, will be the key­note speak­er Thursday at Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s an­nu­al en­ergy con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas.

She’s not the only bold-faced name at the event, which in­cludes re­marks from Re­id, White House ad­viser John Podesta, and oth­ers. But Clin­ton’s speech is sure to be the biggest draw and at­tract the most scru­tiny.

Here what the en­ergy world is watch­ing for:

Will She Split With Obama?

One of the biggest stor­ies of Clin­ton’s sum­mer of me­dia ap­pear­ances was her cri­ti­cism of ele­ments of Pres­id­ent Obama’s for­eign policy in an in­ter­view with The At­lantic. It’s un­clear wheth­er any rup­tures are in the off­ing on en­ergy and cli­mate policy. Back when both were run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2008, they split over a gas­ol­ine-tax hol­i­day (Clin­ton favored it, Obama didn’t).

More re­cently, Clin­ton has praised Obama’s car­bon reg­u­la­tions for power plants, but en­ergy and cli­mate policy are sprawl­ing top­ics, so there’s plenty of room for dif­fer­ences—even­tu­ally.

Do Cli­mate Den­iers Get an Olive Branch or a Base­ball Bat?

Obama has minced no words of late when he talks about op­pon­ents to his cli­mate-change ef­forts, pok­ing at mem­bers of Con­gress who “stub­bornly and auto­mat­ic­ally re­ject the sci­entif­ic evid­ence about cli­mate change.” Clin­ton has like­wise been dis­missive of cli­mate den­iers, but will she try to strike a more con­cili­at­ory stance to keep open the pro­spect of co­oper­a­tion with Re­pub­lic­an foes?

At a June speech at a Bi­o­tech­no­logy In­dustry Or­gan­iz­a­tion con­fer­ence, Clin­ton in­stead went after the me­dia for cre­at­ing a “false equi­val­ency” by bring­ing on cli­mate den­iers to bal­ance the be­liefs of 98 per­cent of sci­ent­ists. “It isn’t a de­bate,” Clin­ton said. “The de­bate is settled. What is not settled is what we’re go­ing to do about the de­bate.”

Fin­ess­ing the Frack­ing Boom

The U.S. oil and gas surge is a po­ten­tial mine­field for any­one fa­cing Demo­crat­ic primar­ies, even a jug­ger­naut like Clin­ton. Many en­vir­on­ment­al­ists don’t like Obama’s “all of the above” man­tra that em­braces oil and gas drilling. But at the same time, the pro­duc­tion boom has giv­en the U.S. more lever­age on the glob­al stage when it comes to is­sues like oil sanc­tions against Ir­an and the longer-term pos­sib­il­ity of us­ing U.S. gas ex­ports to counter Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence in Europe—top­ics Clin­ton un­der­stands well.

Clin­ton, for her part, has praised the nat­ur­al-gas surge while ac­know­ledging en­vir­on­ment­al con­cerns with frack­ing and meth­ane emis­sions, call­ing for “smart reg­u­la­tions.” How Clin­ton ad­dresses oil and gas de­vel­op­ment, not to men­tion wheth­er the U.S. should ex­port crude oil, is something to watch this week (if she broaches it) and go­ing for­ward.

We’ll Al­ways Have Par­is “… to Look For­ward To

Clin­ton de­votes a chunk of Hard Choices, her re­cent State De­part­ment mem­oir, to de­tail­ing her and Obama’s work at the 2009 United Na­tions cli­mate sum­mit in Copen­ha­gen, which ul­ti­mately pro­duced a vol­un­tary agree­ment among coun­tries to cut emis­sions. She’s since said that she wants the 2015 U.N. meet­ings in Par­is to net a stronger deal, writ­ing that her hope is for “a new leg­al agree­ment on emis­sions and mit­ig­a­tion that is ap­plic­able to every coun­try in the world.” Clin­ton made cli­mate change a fo­cus of her State De­part­ment ten­ure and has talked up the in­ter­na­tion­al im­plic­a­tions on her book tour, so she’ll likely keep the pres­sure high as lead­ers pre­pare for a cli­mate sum­mit in New York this month.

De­tails or Plat­it­udes?

The crowd of en­ergy ex­ec­ut­ives, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, and clean-tech in­siders at Re­id’s sum­mit will be hungry for spe­cif­ics on Clin­ton’s en­ergy plans.

There’s plenty to won­der about, like Clin­ton’s take on the fu­ture of en­ergy tax cred­its (bey­ond the broad-brush sup­port for “tar­geted in­cent­ives” from her re­cent book) and wheth­er Clin­ton, who co­sponsored cap-and-trade bills as New York sen­at­or, would try to push ma­jor cli­mate and en­ergy le­gis­la­tion. The plans of a Clin­ton En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency are a key top­ic too, in­clud­ing wheth­er she would push for car­bon-emis­sions rules for sources like re­finer­ies and big factor­ies that won’t face reg­u­la­tion on Obama’s watch.

But the crowd may go home dis­ap­poin­ted: There’s noth­ing to stop Clin­ton from play­ing it safe by speak­ing only in broad strokes about the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits of lead­ing in green-en­ergy mar­kets, cli­mate risks, and en­ergy se­cur­ity.

Clin­ton may be more likely to stray in­to the world of en­ergy dip­lomacy. Hard Choices touts form­a­tion of the de­part­ment’s Bur­eau of En­ergy Re­sources on her watch. The book counts en­ergy among the top­ics that must be at the “heart” of Amer­ic­an dip­lomacy. How she ap­plies that idea to hot spots like Ukraine go­ing for­ward is something that will sur­face soon­er or later on the stump.

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Key­stone

Clin­ton has so far art­fully dodged weigh­ing in on the con­tro­ver­sial Al­berta-to-Gulf Coast oil-sands pipeline, de­clin­ing to men­tion the Key­stone XL in her book and sidestep­ping dir­ect ques­tions about it. Take this an­swer from a June in­ter­view with the Toronto Globe & Mail: “[T]his par­tic­u­lar de­cision is a very dif­fi­cult one be­cause there are so many factors at play. I can’t really com­ment at great length be­cause I had re­spons­ib­il­ity for it and it’s been passed on and it wouldn’t be ap­pro­pri­ate, but I hope that Ca­na­dians ap­pre­ci­ate that the United States gov­ern­ment—the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion—is try­ing to get it right.”

It’s un­likely that Clin­ton will break her si­lence on the pipeline this week, es­pe­cially since the State De­part­ment will weigh in on the pipeline’s per­mit after the Novem­ber midterms and be­fore her own cam­paign would start in earn­est, giv­ing her some meas­ure of cov­er.

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