Battle Over Clean Energy: Next Partisan Fight?

House GOP budget threatens to derail President Obama's clean energy agenda.

Feb. 18, 2010— -- The House Republicans' 2011 budget proposal, which proposes deep cuts in clean energy programs, threatens President Obama's goals and sets the stage for a battle between Republicans and Democrats to define the country's energy agenda.

The House Republicans' continuing resolution that would fund the government until October is unlikely to pass in the Senate, and the president threatened to veto it this week.

But the budget bill, which calls for hefty cuts in energy and environmental research, indicates that finding common ground on the subject may not be an easy task.

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama set an ambitious goal for the nation.

"By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources," he said. "Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all, and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

The president tied the country's clean energy future to its security and economy, continuing his rhetoric in the last two years touting energy independence and need for investment in clean and renewable energy.

But the Republican agenda, as evidenced by the budget resolution, sets a vastly different tone.

It slashes nearly $889 million from energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and cuts billions from federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. It bars the EPA from using Congressional funds to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act or from denying or approving state implementation plans or permits, and takes away $3 billion from the agency's budget.

It cuts back funding for energy, water and science programs, and reduces funding for non-core research and federal loan guarantees for lower-demand programs, including those related to the energy and environment. Most committees are prohibited from starting new programs without approval.

The House Appropriations Committee also seeks to reduce spending by cutting Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy -- which is used to fund electric grids -- and science accounts, both of which received huge funding levels in the stimulus bill.

It cuts funding for the Department of Energy's science office budget and other programs that support renewable energy and clean energy research.

Democrats charge that the Republicans' agenda will halt projects already in the works and make it difficult for the Energy Department to guarantee loans. Others say it will halt job creation and curb U.S. global competitiveness.

Some of Obama's own proposals in the budget have come under fire from Republicans, such as ending subsidies for oil and gas companies, which the White House says will save $46 billion over 10 years.

"The president has a fight on his hands to achieve the clean energy goals that he has set, and the continuing resolution simply reinforces the fact that anything that requires significant spending will be difficult," said Michael A. Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The big wildcard there is Senate Republicans. If a significant slice of Senate Republicans want to support some of this investment and are willing to fight for it in conference, that could make a difference. But this is going to be tough."

Last year, Democrats proposed a slew of comprehensive energy and environmental legislations -- many of them crafted on a bipartisan basis -- but the issue was dwarfed by other big-ticket items like health care.

Energy and Environment the Next Big Partisan Fight?

The issue became a focal point of many heated debates in the mid-term elections, with Republicans -- and even some Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- campaigning against "cap and trade."

Experts say there is likely to be a mix of targeted efforts going forward, but whether they are successful in the current polarized political environment remains to be seen.

"I think it's safe to say that the preoccupation with spending reductions has swamped any other policy consideration for many House members," said Paul Bledsoe, former communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force and currently director of strategy and communications at the National Commission of Energy Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. "It may not be that they are constitutionally opposed to efforts to incentivize clean energy, but in the current budget dynamic they feel the need to essentially cut any spending they can."

Even though they may not be willing to reach as far as the president on clean energy reforms, there have been some signs that Republicans may not be completely resistant to such efforts.

For example, on Thursday the House voted against two amendments that would have cut an extra $70 million for efficiency and renewable funding for the Department of Energy, and another that would have slashed $50 million from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which conducts research on long-term technology. However, the continuing resolution does cut ARPA-E funding overall.

"The fact that the House did not zero out that funding indicates a recognition that clean energy future will be critical to U.S. competitiveness," Bledsoe said. "I do think there is a recognition by the Republicans that clean energy is going to be a whole new economic sector globally, and could be in the U.S., but its going to take some thoughtful policies to incubate it. I think there is that recognition there but the two sides haven't come together on the best policy approaches."

Republicans also have to iron out differences among themselves, because the impact of such policies vary from state to state. Lawmakers from California may be more inclined to promote clean energy than those from Texas and Oklahoma, home to big oil and gas companies.