During his state of the union address, President Obama called for a clean energy standard that 80 percent of the nation’s electricity be generated by “clean energy” technologies by 2035. Clean energy sources would presumably include zero-carbon or low-carbon sources. If you include combined cycle natural gas generation, approximately 40 percent of U.S. electric generation would be considered “clean energy.” Coal accounts for nearly half of electric generation currently (EIA Electric Power Monthly). Combined with a regulatory agenda that includes several new or revised EPA rules that primarily affect coal- and oil-fired electric generating units, the divide between green groups and the electric generating industry is as vast as ever.
In Congress, the ideological rift is based mostly on economics. Coal is domestically abundant and cheap. Renewable (“green”) energy sources are still largely dependent on tax subsidies, some of which are set to expire, to make them economically competitive. There are conflicting analyses as to whether environmental regulations create or cut jobs, along with daily news that more utilities will be shuttering older coal plants in anticipation of excessive costs for complying with pending EPA rules. The Republicans managed to pass several bills in the House that would curtail or delay EPA regulations but those measures have stalled in the Senate. In the meantime, several environmental groups have brought suit against the EPA for failing to promulgate regulations for the disposal of coal ash.
Is there any hope of making progress on a clean energy policy during an election year? It is disappointing that in politics, taking a position of pragmatism that has long-view objectives is so unpopular. Even outside of Washington it seems that if you are not for EPA regulations, then it is perceived you must be against them. If you do not want to shut down all coal plants, then you must be happy to pollute the earth? Polarizing the clean energy debate won’t get us any closer to achieving environmental and energy independence objectives…but it does resonate during election years. Unfortunately, 2012 looks to be a year where clean energy policy is stymied by politics.