A million electric cars on the road by 2012? Utilities getting 80 percent of their fuel from clean sources by 2035? These and other clean energy goals are exciting to contemplate as part of the President’s agenda, especially given volatility in the Middle East. But how realistic are those goals? Especially since the Republicans have made clear that major comprehensive energy legislation is a non-starter. And especially because, as Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield recently noted at a New England Council briefing, you can trace the demise of Democrats in the House, 63 seats to be specific, to the cap-and-trade provision of last session’s House energy legislation. Throughout the autumn, the talking heads were all over the issue in opposition and legislators treated the bill as “cap and tax.”
President Obama has cleverly linked advances in clean energy to our becoming more competitive with the Chinese. The idea works philosophically, but what about practically? Neal notes that getting to clean energy will be a long slog. We will be dependent on fossil fuels for a long time. Wind power, for example, may work in North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, Neal point out, but elsewhere will be but a small contributor to energy supply. Right now, it’s less than one percent. Solar is a long way off, and China has already stolen a march on us in that department.
When it comes to energy, all politics is regional. If you’re from a coal or oil state, regional alliances trump partisan affiliation. President Obama suggested ending tax subsidies to fossil fuels, yesterday’s energy, and providing tax subsidies instead to fund clean energy development, tomorrow’s energy. Using the tax code to encourage alternative energy may provide poetic symmetry but, given the pressures of regional politics, it’s not going to happen overnight. Or over many cold nights.
Congressman Neal makes it clear why he came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the Ranking Member on the House Ways and Means Committee. He’s keenly intelligent on the substantive issues and savvy about the personalities and pressures of legislative maneuvering. I’d like to think he’s wrong about the prospects for progress on energy and the environment this session, but I fear I must defer to his wisdom and experience.
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