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Hillary Clinton is likely to be more conservative on energy policy in 2016 than she was 8 years ago

Clinton. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton's appearance at a clean energy convention in Las Vegas on Thursday night turns attention to yet another aspect of the likely Democratic presidential candidate's policy platform for 2016: energy. As usual (and perhaps to her detriment), Clinton is not expected to actually delineate any specific policy goals on energy production. But if she did, it's safe to assume we know what she would say. There's no reason to think Clinton's positions on energy have, in the main, changed since 2008. If anything, they've shifted to the ideological right slightly.

The event is not set up to challenge Clinton on the subject. As Politico noted, it's a forum largely organized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and she'll be interviewed by John Podesta -- a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and current advisor to President Obama. She will not take questions from the media. None of this is unusual; Clinton's insistence on a smooth ride at such convenings is central to her pre-campaign campaign.

But even if the event wasn't set up to be a breeze for Clinton, where would the challenge come? In November 2007, the last time she was expected to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Clinton spoke to an audience in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, outlining her campaign platform on the subject. Then, as now, discussion of energy meant a discussion of the environment. In her Cedar Rapids speech, Clinton outlined her policy goals, which we'll slightly paraphrase:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.
  • Institute a cap and trade system to reduce carbon pollution.
  • Cut foreign oil imports by two thirds from projected levels by 2030.
  • Unleash a wave of private-sector innovation in clean energy and energy efficiency.
  • Reduce electricity demands 20 percent by 2020.
  • Create a program called the Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association to secure affordable loans from private lenders to improve energy efficiency in homes.
  • Raise the fuel efficiency standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2020 and 55 by 2030.
  • End tax breaks to oil companies and use the money to fund research into oil alternatives.
  • Produce 25 percent of the nation's electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025.
  • Sign international treaties on cutting GHG emissions.

And there you go. An energy platform perfect for 2008. And, for environmental purists, 2016.

This platform didn't differ too much from that of candidate Barack Obama. When President Barack Obama started trying to make it real -- or, at least, started trying to make parts of it real -- he encountered a number of challenges. Cap and trade died in the Senate in 2010. Obama introduced limits on carbon pollution earlier this year -- at a more modest rate of 30 percent by 2030. Working with auto manufacturers, the president created a 54.5 mpg efficiency standard by 2025, perhaps the clearest example of a climate success in his first term.

But after watching carbon dioxide emissions fall over his first term -- thanks in part to a sinking economy -- they ticked up again in 2013. Obama's broad support for renewable energy became a toxic political proposition, particularly after the collapse of Solyndra. Use of renewables, despite a boom in wind turbine production and solar, comprised about 11 percent of America's electricity production in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration. In 1990, renewables comprised 10 percent.

That's because of the yellow line on the graph above: natural gas. Obama's overseen a big drop in the import of foreign oil for the same reason that more electricity is being produced from natural gas: the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the upper Plains states.

That process has introduced new environmental concerns which Hillary '08 didn't need to consider. Fracking, as you're likely aware, has been linked to water pollution, largely thanks to the pressurized, in-ground storage systems used to dispose of waste water from fracking operations. It's been linked to earthquakes. And the extraction process itself releases natural gas into the atmosphere -- methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It's not clear how much methane leaks from drilling operations, but environmentalists (and some researchers) aren't sure the reduction in carbon dioxide gained by burning gas instead of coal is worth the methane leaks.

At MSNBC, Alex Seitz-Wald notes that the question of fracking is one of two new energy-environment issues to have arisen since Clinton last ran for president. The other is the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed system for shunting a form of oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast that has become a centerpiece of environmental activism. The State Department holds approval/veto authority over the pipeline since it crosses an international border. When Clinton was Secretary of State, she punted on an approval decision, almost certainly at the behest of her boss, President Obama. If Obama doesn't resolve the situation before 2016 heats up -- which seems unlikely, but who knows -- Clinton will need to take a position.

Which brings us to the politics. In 2008, Clinton had a very progressive view on the environment and on energy. That was a function of two things. First, public attitudes on climate change were more receptive to direct action (like that massive 80 percent drop in CO2 emissions). That openness to reform was partly because Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" was still fresh in the public consciousness. (In 2008, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain also backed cuts to carbon emissions -- deeper cuts than Obama's recent proposal.)

It was also because Hillary Clinton was running in a contested Democratic primary. In November 2007, the threat posed by Obama's candidacy was just starting to sharpen. Clinton had to appeal to a progressive base that was energized on environmental issues, and contrast herself with a president, George W. Bush, who procrastinated on environmental action. So far, no such pressures exist this time around.

For a Clinton 2016 candidacy, fracking isn't a question. "We must assure that it's not polluting our air and water," she can (and perhaps will) say, "but, done right, fracking helps create jobs, reduce CO2 emissions, and reduce our dependency on foreign oil." This is probably not what Hillary '08 would have said, but Clinton isn't running against Hillary '08, either.

On the surface, Keystone is trickier for any Democratic candidate including Clinton. But Clinton doesn't need to make a decision yet. In its preview of Thursday's event, Politico points out that her appearance allows her to "embrace an audience of influential progressive activists and green-industry leaders." Which is partly true. The real activist base of the environmental movement -- the people who'd push back hard on fracking and who would be furious if she were to support building the Keystone pipeline -- probably won't be in the room. But given the path Clinton sees in front of her leading to November 2016, they're not as important as the people who will be there, anyway -- people who would like to hear her repeat her support for renewable energy, and business owners who can eventually write checks to make sure that happens.

If and when Clinton outlines her energy policies for 2016, look for them to include figures that are a bit lower than what she mentioned in 2008. Look for her to be generally OK with fracking, albeit with an assiduously knit brow. But do not expect any surprises. This is, after all, Hillary Clinton.