Clean Energy Progress Without Congress

Priorities for State of the Union and Beyond

The president should focus on administrative clean energy measures this year, writes Daniel J. Weiss. He will have to use executive authority to accomplish them due to congressional conservatives’ opposition to progress.

President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009. President Obama noted in that speech that “the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.” He can reaffirm his commitment to clean energy in this year's State of the Union. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009. President Obama noted in that speech that “the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.” He can reaffirm his commitment to clean energy in this year's State of the Union. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

President Barack Obama came into office determined to address America’s persistent energy problems. These challenges included protecting our health, reducing oil use, slowing global warming, and boosting our international economic competitiveness. All of these challenges remain despite the administration’s energy achievements, which is why President Obama should include a comprehensive clean energy agenda in his State of the Union on January 25 that addresses them. He should also warn Congress that he would veto congressional efforts to block or slow such progress.

The administration has many energy successes along with a major disappointment. One of those successes was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or ARRA that included $90 billion of direct spending and tax incentives to invest in clean energy technologies and services. ARRA supported 720,000 clean energy jobs as of April 2010. By the time ARRA ends, 1 million homes will be weatherized and renewable electricity production will double.

Another accomplishment was the agreement he crafted with auto companies, auto workers, and states to adopt more efficient automobile fuel economy and carbon emission standards. These will save nearly 2 billion barrels of oil, and they will reduce carbon pollution by nearly 1 billion tons over the life of these cars.

The major disappointment, of course, is the Senate’s failure to join the House in passing comprehensive clean energy and global warming pollution reduction legislation. A price on carbon pollution would protect public health, boost investments in clean energy, encourage innovation, and provide certainty for utilities and energy investors. This failure occurred due to the worst economy in 80 years, near unanimous Senate Republican opposition to action, and a $100 million pressure campaign by Big Oil and Dirty Coal to convince legislators to vote “no.”

Progress will become more difficult in the 112th Congress. President Obama faces a Congress with many more climate science deniers as he enters the third year of his term. Even though 2010 was the hottest year on record, following the hottest decade, these members do not believe that there is a problem. They will therefore oppose all solutions. Moreover, stagnant job growth intensely focuses politicians on job creation, so lies from Big Oil and Dirty Coal about the employment impact of clean energy and pollution reductions will fall on more susceptible ears.

In his upcoming State of the Union address President Obama should remind the nation and Congress about the imperative to save lives, reduce oil use, grow our economy, and cut pollution. After his speech he should focus first on using existing executive authority for action given increased congressional antagonism toward clean energy proposals and the number of newly elected climate science deniers.

The president reminded Americans in a Wall Street Journal op-ed January 18 that executive branch rules have affordably protected the public:

Throughout our history, one of the reasons the free market has worked is that we have sought the proper balance. We have preserved freedom of commerce while applying those rules and regulations necessary to protect the public against threats to our health and safety and to safeguard people and businesses from abuse.

From child labor laws to the Clean Air Act…we have, from time to time, embraced common sense rules of the road that strengthen our country without unduly interfering with the pursuit of progress and the growth of our economy.

The economic benefits of the Clean Air Act rules outweighed the costs by more than 20-to-1 in 2010. And it will be nearly 30-to-1 by 2020, according to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis.

The president should implement existing clean air protections, then turn to bipartisan legislative proposals that could make additional progress—while warning Congress that he will veto efforts to stop or delay enforcement of existing safeguards.

Below are the key clean energy goals the president should focus on this year and the policy tools he can use to accomplish them.

A clean energy agenda for 2011

Protect Americans’ health

Americans continue to die prematurely due to air pollution. The National Academy of Sciences determined that burning coal and oil costs the United States about $120 billion annually in health costs—mostly due to thousands of premature deaths from air pollution. Many of the sources of these pollutants—including coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and motor vehicles—are also major contributors to global warming.

New House leaders want to weaken clean air health protections as well as deny climate science. Regardless, President Obama should use authority granted to him by Congress under the Clean Air Act to slash acid rain, smog, and toxic and global warming pollutants. Such safeguards would save lives, and they would also boost demand for electricity generation from the wind, sun, and natural gas. The measures would provide certainty for utilities and other energy investors about future pollution reduction requirements and expand the market for cleaner electricity generation technologies and fuels.

The president can take the following actions to make our air cleaner and safer:

  • Protect children, seniors, and other vulnerable people from deadly air pollution by having the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, enforce the Clean Air Act to require coal-fired power plants to significantly reduce their mercury, soot, sulfur, and other pollutants. Issuing and enforcing these pending safeguards would speed the retirement of some aging, dirty coal plants that are cheaper to close than clean up. This also would provide consumers with improved electricity reliability and clean energy investors with greater demand for cleaner power.
  • Reiterate his support for enforcing the law requiring EPA to set greenhouse gas pollution reductions under the Clean Air Act since Congress failed to act. He should also commit to vetoing legislation that blocks or delays such safeguards.
  • Issue an executive order that requires federal agencies to purchase a portion of their electricity from renewable sources.

Cut oil use

Oil prices are approaching $100 per barrel, which is nearly 20 percent higher than a year ago. This is yet another reminder that the United States’s public health, economy, and security will suffer as long as our oil thirst continues. Americans spent an average of $228 million per day on imported oil in 2010, and these purchases are nearly half of our trade deficit. One of every five barrels of oil consumed in the United States also comes from “dangerous or unstable” nations, according to the State Department.

President Obama should set a goal of curbing oil imports and increasing our energy independence by achieving a 2.5 percent cut in imports by 2015, which would reduce consumption by 460,000 barrels per day. He can achieve reductions via executive actions (see the Center for American Progress’s “The Power of the President”) and bipartisan legislation (see “Cooperation or Confrontation”).

Specifically, he can:

  • Direct the Department of Transportation and EPA to set fuel economy standards that reach 60 miles per gallon by 2025 for cars and light trucks built in model years 2017 to 2025. The first-ever efficiency standards for big rig trucks should require that they are up to 35 percent more efficient. The combination of theses measures would save 3.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2030.
  • Issue an executive order to double the number of federal vehicles that use non-oil-based fuels. Other federal vehicles should attain higher fuel economy than the average vehicles in that class.
  • Implement the Clean Air Act requirement that bus fleets in large metropolitan areas use “low polluting fuel” such as natural gas.
  • Under the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, levy a $2 barrel fee on imported oil that would raise over $9 billion annually for clean energy investments and deficit reduction. This would increase gasoline prices by less than five cents per gallon.
  • Enact legislation to provide incentives to companies, school districts, and cities to purchase natural gas-powered medium and heavy duty trucks and buses, and build charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.
  • Adopt the recommendations of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to reduce the likelihood of another disastrous oil blowout and urge Congress to raise the liability cap oil companies must pay for future spills from $75 million to at least $10 billion.

Save energy and save money

Energy efficiency is the fastest, cheapest way to reduce energy bills, increase competitiveness, create domestic jobs, and cut pollution. Relatively modest federal assistance for retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient can achieve big household and business savings and create thousands of jobs.

The president and Congress can take the following steps to promote energy efficiency:

  • Enact HOME Star and Building Star programs to provide assistance for energy efficiency retrofits for homes and businesses.
  • Enact new, more efficient standards to make new buildings 50 percent more efficient beginning in 2015.
  • The Air Force, Army, and Navy have all undertaken programs to increase installation energy efficiency and utilize emerging renewable energy technologies, such as putting solar panels on Air Force hangers. Congress should maintain funding for these efforts as well as ensure that the services share ideas and successes.

Increase competitiveness

The United States ranks 11th among the G-20 nations in “clean energy investment intensity” or clean energy investments per unit of gross domestic product. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) noted in a January 11, 2011 speech at the Center for American Progress Action Fund that the United States is falling behind other nations in critical components of economic competitiveness such as clean energy technologies. He observed that “China’s government is poised to outspend the United States 3-to-1 on public clean energy projects over the next several years.” Major firms like Deutsche Bank are making green investments elsewhere.

President Obama should forcefully reiterate his determination to keep the United States in the global clean energy race by working with members from both parties to pass legislation that boosts investments across the value chain—from invention to production to deployment—in the clean energy technologies of the future.

Here are some steps that would help keep the United States competitive and create thousands of jobs.

These actions will save lives and grow the economy

President Obama noted that “the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century” in his first address to the Congress on February 24, 2009. His recent op-ed reiterated that “that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth.” Nonetheless, congressional conservatives and their Big Oil allies are uninterested in clean energy. They will attempt to undermine or undo existing programs to protect public health, cut oil use, and create jobs.

The State of the Union presents a golden opportunity for the president to contrast conservative opposition with his reaffirmation of the nation’s commitment to a clean energy future. He can do this by announcing these executive actions that would save lives and grow a vibrant middle class by cutting pollution, creating jobs, and saving families money.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at American Progress.

For more State of the Union policy suggestions see:

Finding Realistic Deficit Reduction by Michael Ettlinger

Scale Back the Defense Budget by Lawrence J. Korb and Laura Conley

Exceptionally American Competitiveness by Sarah Wartell Rosen, Ed Paisley, and Kate Gordon

Smarter Enforcement, More Targeted Measures by Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley

Touting the Benefits of Health Reform at This Year’s State of the Union by Karen Davenport

Education Priority Number One for Congress in 2011: Reauthorize ESEA

Outlining a Strategy for Peace by Caroline Wadhams

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow