It may be time to bury cap-and-trade.
Speaking in his first prime-time televised address from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama hit a range of topics. He promised the people of the Gulf Coast, and the rest of the country, that his Administration would do whatever it took to fight the BP oil spill—while warning us that it would take months and possibly years. He directed outrage at BP and told Americans that he would make sure, when meeting with BP CEO Tony Hayward on Wednesday, that the company would set aside money in an independently administered account that would go to compensate all those affected by the spill. He acknowledged—though did not apologize for—his own failures in pushing ahead on expanded offshore drilling before cleaning house at the Minerals Management Service, and announced that Michael R. Bromwich, a former Inspector General of the Justice Department, would lead the agency’s much-needed reform. And he vowed to attack the root cause of spills like Deepwater Horizon—our decades-long addiction to oil, denied for far too long:
The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.
We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.
But though Obama went on to hail the promise of a clean energy economy, one that would produce “millions of good, middle-class jobs,” and emphasized the need for government to set in and accelerate that transition, he made no mention of the policy that mainstream environmentalists have spent the last several years fighting for: carbon cap-and-trade. Just about every other idea had a cameo:
So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development – and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.
It’s true that a carbon cap, which will chiefly impact electricity first, may not have that great an effect on oil use initially. But Presidents—even George W. Bush—have been calling for America to rethink its oil addiction for years, with no effect whatsoever. This time might really be different—there are ideas on the table that could make a real difference on oil use even without a carbon cap. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, released a plan on Monday that he says could end American dependence on foreign oil by 2030, with ambitious targets for electric cars, energy efficiency and natural gas. (See David Roberts’ smart take on the plan at Grist.)
And if Obama is really serious about changing some of the insane parts of our energy policy—like the fact that we spend less than $5 billion on energy R&D a year, a number that Bill Gates wants to triple—he could be truly revolutionary. There’s evidence that cap-and-trade may not even be the best way to shift from fossil fuels—and it’s certainly not an easy political sell any longer. But even though the votes don’t seem to be there, if there were ever a time for Obama to really push a carbon cap, this moment was it. And he didn’t. Environmentalists who’ve staked their reputation on a carbon price—including Al Gore, who called on the President after the speech to focus on a cap—will need to reckon with that.