President Obama reaches out to Republicans to get new energy legislation

Saturday, January 30, 2010

WE'VE ALREADY said that President Obama's State of the Union address didn't convince us that he had a real plan to improve the tone of politics in Washington. But on energy, Mr. Obama did reach out to Republicans -- not just rhetorically, but with substantive concessions meant to revitalize a foundering legislative effort.

The president spoke of "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" and "opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development." Mr. Obama made Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's response -- that "this administration's policies are delaying offshore production" and "hindering nuclear energy expansion" -- look a little stale. Anti-nuclear environmentalists, meanwhile, quickly pronounced Mr. Obama's speech to be "a kick in the gut."

The president was right to reach out.

The debate over comprehensive energy legislation has hit a wall in the Senate. The monstrous House-passed Waxman-Markey bill won't attract GOP support or that of moderate Senate Democrats. Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) are working on a grand compromise bill, the prospects of which are murky at best. A serious nuclear provision in whatever energy bill the Senate does take up could attract some GOP interest, particularly now that Mr. Obama has supported it publicly.

If the policy were bad, of course, this would be hard to justify. But Mr. Graham and others are persuasive that nuclear power, while hardly perfect, should be considered fairly along with other emissions-free energy sources in legislation, and that the process of permitting and financing new plants should be streamlined.

Mr. Obama was right about something else on Wednesday: Beyond such fixes, the best way to promote emissions-free energy is for Congress to put a price on carbon, giving private actors incentives to devise the most efficient ways to curb U.S. emissions. The best way to do that is through a carbon tax or a well-designed cap-and-trade scheme. Neither need be the giveaway that Waxman-Markey turned into. In fact, there are more appealing proposals in the Senate. One is from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); it would cap emissions and rebate most of the proceeds directly to taxpayers.

With the president willing to deal and reasonable ideas on the table, the Senate should be willing to take a fresh look at the issue.

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