Obama shifting climate strategy after GOP gains

By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 5, 2010; A03

Can the administration fight climate change without stressing climate change?

The new Congress will usher in an unprecedented number of lawmakers who question the link between human activity and global warming. As a result, the Obama administration is abandoning its two-year quest to convince the public and lawmakers that global warming is a matter of scientific urgency. Instead, the president is talking about nuclear power use, natural gas exploitation and sales of electric cars.

In his press conference Wednesday, Obama said the cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions that his administration had advocated "was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end."

A White House official said energy would remain a top priority for the administration but would be packaged differently.

"I think you'll see in the next few weeks the administration say, 'Okay, you may not necessarily agree with the science on climate change, you may not see tackling greenhouse gases as a real priority, but what we can all agree on is creating jobs and investing in a clean-energy economy that's going to leave the U.S. more competitive,' " said Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate-change policy.

Obama suggested that the agreement forged with the auto industry and unions to boost the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks could be a model for talks with utilities over reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of power plants. Other administration officials said they were already exploring this. Such a deal would not require congressional action.

James L. Connaughton, who chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush and now serves as executive vice president for corporate affairs at Constellation Energy - said he can envision a compromise akin to the one Bush struck with the new Democratic congressional majority in the 2007 energy bill.

"It can be done, but it takes very pointed presidential leadership," said Connaughton. "You have to focus like a laser beam and move quick, because before you know it you're in a presidential election."

What remains unclear is whether GOP leaders, and the new members bolstering their ranks, will embrace any of the ideas that Obama is offering as a compromise.

Five of the six new GOP senators and 35 of the 85 incoming Republican freshmen in the House have questioned whether greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity contribute to climate change, according to Daily Kos blogger R.L. Miller and ThinkProgress, an arm of the Center for American Progress. And some of the Democrats who won seats this year made opposition to climate legislation central to their campaign - incoming Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) aired an ad in which he shot up the House-passed climate bill.

Many of the winning candidates campaigned on a message of fiscal austerity and smaller government, and even the more modest proposals the president has mentioned - such as vehicle electrification and a renewable-energy standard - entail either additional federal funding or new government mandates.

A spokesperson for Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party favorite, said Paul would not comment until he had seen specific proposals. But his campaign Web site made it clear where Paul stood on using government funding and regulation to alter the U.S. energy supply.

"Any energy source that really meets the needs of the American consumer would not need the government to subsidize it," the Web site said, arguing that such subsidies distort the free market for energy and encourage companies to advance their interests through lobbying instead of innovation. "Just as we don't subsidize laptops and iPods, we should not be subsidizing solar and wind power."

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who has consistently supported the expansion of nuclear power and electric cars, said in a statement that many of his colleagues support those two proposals "as good ways to produce low cost clean energy" but that "any government support should not add to the federal deficit."

Many in the business community are looking for opportunities to challenge assertive rulemaking by the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department.

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, told reporters in a phone call that he expected the GOP House majority to scrutinize "regulatory and, in some circumstances, legislative overkill" by the administration.

In a press conference Wednesday, national environmental leaders said they would resist efforts to roll back the EPA's authority and would seek to make progress in states such as California and Massachusetts, which will be led by Democratic governors committed to renewable energy.

But state efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions could lose steam in the wake of the elections. Roderick Bremby, the top environment official in Kansas, resigned Tuesday as Sen. Sam Brownback (R) cruised to victory in the gubernatorial race. Three years ago, Bremby was the nation's first official to reject an air permit application for a power plant because of carbon dioxide emissions.

The outgoing governor, Mark Parkinson - a former Republican who took over in 2009 when Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama Cabinet - gave Bremby a choice of leaving immediately or overseeing the transition. Bremby left.

His early departure will probably help Sunflower Electric, which has reapplied to build two coal plants in the western part of the state; it hopes to obtain permits before new state regulations take effect in January.

eilperinj@washpost.com mufsons@washpost.com

Staff writer David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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