Environmental groups that are counting on President Obama investing his political capital to strengthen climate legislation as it moves through the U.S. Senate should read his interview yesterday with energy reporters.
The president summed up his position when asked about his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Europeans' push for more aggressive emissions reduction targets from the United States.
"My argument to her and to the Europeans is we don't want to make the best the enemy of the good," Obama said.
He went on to describe his expectations for climate legislation in the Senate, where presidential advisor David Axelrod told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that the climate bill would likely take a backseat to health care reform and might not come to the floor before fall.
Once the Senate gets to work, don't be surprised to see the bill watered down further, and don't expect the president to stop that from happening.
Obama said he expects "a series of tough negotiations." Perhaps more telling, he described Rick Boucher's strong-arming for the coal industry in the House as "constructive" and a blueprint for the Senate. (Boucher himself bragged that he ensured coal a long, bright future.).
"I think now that you've seen somebody like a Rick Boucher of Virginia able to enter into very constructive negotiations with a Henry Waxman of California, that, I think, provides a blueprint for how the Senate can proceed," Obama said.
"I've got some broad criteria the House bill meets. There are going to be provisions in the House bill and in the Senate bill which I question, in terms of their effectiveness. I'm not going to have a line-item veto, so ultimately – you know, I'll take a look at the final product. And if it meets those broad criteria – moving the country forward on energy efficiency – then it's a bill that I will embrace."
"Finding the right balance between providing new incentives to businesses, but not giving away the store, is always an art."
As the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill moved through the House, sponsor Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) made deep concessions to the coal industry and industrial agriculture to win the 219 votes the bill needed to squeak though on Friday.
Obama hinted yesterday that off-shore drilling might be one group levering the bill even further in the Senate. ConocoPhillips is also angling for oil and natural gas to get the kind of deals that Boucher's coal-fired utilities received.
A measure to open Florida's Gulf Coast to off-shore drilling was already written into the Senate's version of an energy bill, approved earlier this month to the delight of the oil industry and the chagrin of environmental groups. And in the interview session yesterday, Obama left the door open for the possibility of sweetening the final bill with off-shore oil.
"I've already said I'm happy to see us move forward on increasing domestic production, including offshore drilling – but we can't do that in isolation from all these other important steps that need to be taken," the president said.
Over the past month, Obama put his Cabinet members to work educating the House and lobbying for climate action, but the president himself held back pushing for a stronger climate bill and only last week launched a public push to get the ACES bill passed.
The bill approved by the House would create a cap-and-trade system with targets of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (equivalent to about 4 percent below 1990 levels). That's well below both the president's initial proposal and the 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels that IPCC scientists say is necessary. Some of the most carbon-intensive industries would also essentially get a pass for the first decade as 85 percent of the carbon allowance would be given away for free.
Its renewable electricity standard was also seriously weakened to apply only to large utilities and require them to get at least 12 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 rather than 25 percent by 2025, not much of improvement over the expected growth of rewables anyway. Worse, it would strip EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, delay the calculation of biofuels' full lifecycle emissions, and put the Department of Agriculture in charge of agriculture offsets, seen by some as an invitation to corrupt a system that throws the doors wide open to offsets with questionable integrity.
Environmental groups are already revving up their grassroots networks and lobbying efforts to try to improve the bill in the Senate – or at least prevent it from being weakened further.
Greenpeace, which came out against the House bill last week for being too weak, is working on senators to strengthen the bill and encouraging international leaders to help turn up on the pressure on the president and Congress.
NRDC President Francis Beinecke, whose group worked with corporations and energy giants in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership to write the foundation of the bill, applauded the House vote and said her group's focus is now on getting a climate bill to the president before Copenhagen talks in December.
"I hope that the bill will become stronger as it progresses along the legislative process, but as Waxman said at a recent press conference: all the essentials for fighting global warming are already in the bill," Beinecke wrote.
The League of Conservation Voters thanked its members for more than 70,000 calls and over 60,000 emails to House members, and said it was counting on even more support as the bill hits the Senate. The group took what it described as an unprecedented step in refusing to support in 2010 any House member who opposed ACES. It hasn't said if it will consider a similar step in the Senate, where the stakes would be even higher.
Obama was more forgiving of the 44 House Democrats who opposed the bill, saying he was aware that they had to run for re-election every two years. (Toward the end of the interview he had a few choice words for the Republican opposition, however.)
One element of the House bill that does worry the president enough for him to take a public stand yesterday was its tariffs starting in 2020 on imports from countries that don't limit carbon dioxide emissions. The president was clearly worried about a domino effect that U.S. penalties on imports from those countries could start.
"At a time when the economy worldwide is still deep in recession and we've seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals out there," Obama said.
"I am very mindful of wanting to make sure that there's a level playing field internationally. I think there may be other ways of doing it than with a tariff approach."
Overall, he described the bill as "an important first step" after years of inaction.
"On balance, I think what you have with this legislation is a bill that business can embrace but is tough enough that by 2020 we will have seen significant reductions in carbon emissions, we will have seen the kind of certainty in clean energy that the wind industry and the solar industry and the biomass industry has been hungry for," Obama said.
"You're going to see farmers making a series of very concrete decisions about reforestation and tilling and the economic benefits of putting windmills on their acreage, that are going to have huge benefits for rural communities."
"I think what seems controversial now is going to seem like common sense in hindsight."
The Senator-in-chief (The Economist)