By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 31, 2009
After a long day of campaigning on July 8, candidate Barack Obama arrived at his Chicago headquarters for a three-hour brainstorming session about a suddenly hot issue: energy and climate change.
He had summoned a cross section of experts, including top executives from three utilities and two oil companies, the chief energy economist of an investment bank, a climate scientist, a California energy and environment expert, an oil consultant-historian, and several campaign staffers. Despite the late hour, one participant recalled, "He walked in as if he had just gotten up after a refreshing night's sleep to lead a class. He was clearly there to harvest information and then do something with it."
While Obama had held a similar session early in his Senate career, the Chicago meeting marked a turning point in his thinking. He knew there was a moral case for addressing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, but this time, he realized he could make a political and economic case for it. And top advisers say internal polling showed that with gasoline prices at more than $4 a gallon, the American public was open to an energy platform based on economic competitiveness and national security.
Obama went around the room asking the experts about oil prices (then days away from their all-time peak), oil drilling on public lands on and offshore, energy efficiency, and ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. As he listened to the group, his advisers said, he began to grasp how he could sell a low-carbon future to the American public.
"This stuff needs to pop more," he told his aides as he left the room. "We need to find a way to make it pop more."Tackling 'Pop'
Now, four months into his presidency, Obama has elevated energy and climate issues to near the top of his agenda; he has made them pop by packaging them as ways to create "green" jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on imports of foreign oil. Favoring pragmatism over moral suasion, the president is attempting to make a sharp shift in national policy on an issue that many voters have yet to embrace as a priority, advisers and lawmakers say.
His efforts, combined with those of congressional Democrats, have already pushed forward groundbreaking initiatives. February's stimulus act lavished money on projects for renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy research. This month, the White House announced that it had negotiated corporate, state and environmentalist support for higher fuel-efficiency and tailpipe-emissions standards that would clamp the first nationwide limits on greenhouse gases.
Finally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21 approved a bill that would take a cap-and-trade approach to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, inching closer to a domestic legislative compromise that has eluded climate activists for the dozen years since the adoption of the international Kyoto accords.
"Whether or not you think that is a good idea or not depends on your perspective, but no one can deny that the fight going forward and its political implications will reshape how we look at energy issues," said Frank Maisano, an energy industry lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani.
Making climate a key issue was not an obvious decision for Obama. The political benefits are debatable. Energy and climate issues usually register low on lists of voters' concerns; climate legislation is rooted in the idea of limits; Republicans have sought to portray Obama's backing of cap-and-trade legislation as support for a giant new tax; and if legislation is adopted, it will be impossible for decades to point to specific climate trends and claim success.
In the 2004 Senate race, Obama cited his backing of climate-change legislation in seeking support for his Democratic primary bid from the League of Conservation Voters, which ultimately spent $400,000 boosting his candidacy. But energy and climate were not his specialties when he arrived in the Senate after teaching constitutional law, working as a community organizer and serving as a legislator in a state that relies heavily on coal.
But even before the late-night session in July, Obama had begun to educate himself about energy and climate and to use those issues to define himself as a politician, say people who have advised him. He read a three-part New Yorker series on climate change, for instance, and mentioned it in three speeches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a former aide said.
Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, recalled meeting Obama during the winter of 2005 as oil prices were rising. Grumet met often with members of Congress; he would tell them that doing something about oil consumption meant taking on the auto industry, raising fuel efficiency and then not seeing much benefit for a decade or so. At that point, he said, "I'd get the yawn, the glance at the clock, and was told, 'Thanks very much, I'll tell my staff person to get in touch with you.' "
But Obama was different, he said. "If it was going to take years to bear fruit, his response was, 'We'd better do something now.' I was like, 'Wow.' "
Obama asked Grumet to organize a dinner at the Hotel George with a group of people who had differing views on automobile fuel efficiency. The attendees ranged from the conservative R. James Woolsey Jr., a former CIA director and believer in fuel efficiency, to a steelworkers union leader who had long lobbied against higher fuel standards for the auto industry. Obama came away convinced that higher standards were necessary and worked with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to make them part of the 2007 energy bill.
During the presidential campaign, Obama stressed the fuel-efficiency failures of U.S. auto companies in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club, long before the financial crisis would thrust his administration into a central role in reshaping the industry.The Role of Jobs
Obama advisers say he saw that action on climate and energy issues could be sold as boosting job creation and strengthening U.S. companies as well as a matter of economic national security, an argument that he distilled during the campaign into a criticism of how the United States was borrowing money from China to pay Saudi Arabia for fuel to move gas guzzlers down American roads.
Reaching out to Lugar on fuel efficiency was also part of Obama's use of energy issues to shape his bipartisan image. That approach landed him in trouble in early 2007 when he joined Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) on a proposal to promote the conversion of coal to liquid fuels, a process that environmental experts say creates twice as many greenhouse gases as the refining of conventional petroleum products. After he co-sponsored a proposal with Bunning, environmental leaders called to complain. Obama later said that coal-to-liquid fuels would have to meet certain greenhouse gas standards, effectively making the proposal unworkable.
Obama has remained keenly aware of the politics of energy and climate change. He has backed ambitious federal mandates for ethanol use, a position that helped him win support in the Iowa caucuses, even though environmentalists criticize the production process for corn-based ethanol because of its use of energy and fertilizer.
And though during the campaign he spoke against a gasoline tax holiday to offset price increases at the pump, Obama continues to oppose a higher gas tax, which could steer motorists toward purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles.Pragmatism Lauded
But many environmentalists and corporate executives have praised the White House for taking a pragmatic approach to negotiations over the cap-and-trade bill. Duke Energy chief executive James E. Rogers, who promoted free allowances for local electricity firms, said Obama understands the need to protect key industries, states and consumers, and he praised energy and climate czar Carol M. Browner for marshalling congressional support without dictating terms.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said that the president "is trusting us to work these things out internally, and he's not putting down markers."
"This is in keeping with how we have worked with Congress on a number of key issues," a senior administration official said, citing the stimulus and budget bills. "If the president draws a bright line and says, 'I have to have this,' the proposal is dead on arrival."
On May 5, as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) was trying to cement support for the cap-and-trade bill, Obama invited 35 lawmakers to the White House. He said that it was a difficult issue but that dealing with such issues was why they were there. As the lawmakers were getting ready to leave, Obama said, "We have to do something more than symbolic here."
"It was a personal appeal," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who attended the meeting. "He's demonstrated . . . he's willing to put it on the line to get a bill done. You don't do heavy lifting like this without having a president who's willing to put it on the line."