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.

Jason Plautz and Ben Geman
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Jason Plautz Ben Geman
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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