Obama's TV speech undersells how energy policy must change

Thursday, June 17, 2010

FROM THE Oval Office on Tuesday, President Obama argued that the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the need for America to transition from fossil fuels. But even as he attempted to rally Americans by invoking heroic American achievement in World War II and in space, the president didn't talk much about what could make such a transition happen.

The answer is that oil, gas and coal have to become more expensive to spur research into cleaner energy and encourage efficiency and switching. This could be achieved with a gradually rising tax on fossil fuels or a "cap-and-trade" system that makes utilities and others pay to pollute. The government could rebate most of the proceeds directly to Americans and invest the rest in energy research and transition assistance. When a price is placed on burning dirty fuels, market forces will drive the sort of transition Mr. Obama proposes.

The president knows this. In other speeches before and after the gulf spill, he has argued for it. Yet on Tuesday he only hinted at this and seemed to suggest he'd be open to energy legislation that doesn't raise the price of carbon.

For that, Republicans bear considerable blame. To be consistent with both science and their philosophy, they should favor a market-based approach. Most on the national stage instead prefer irresponsibly to pillory the idea as a "job-killing national energy tax"; they propose command-and-control energy programs that they think might be more popular. Democrats with ties to coal or manufacturing interests meanwhile dilute the policy, demand payoffs to support it or shortsightedly oppose it. Legislators in both parties champion more federal spending for their favored technologies.

But the harsh political climate is all the more reason why presidential leadership is essential. Passing comprehensive climate legislation isn't likely to be easier in the next Congress. As the president begins to push on crafting a compromise energy proposal next week, he'll have to be more forthright on what true change will require.

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