White House starts messaging battle on new energy plan

The White House is laboring to put political distance between President Obama’s new energy plan and climate legislation that’s moribund on Capitol Hill.

Obama laid out his new plan in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech. A central pillar calls for 80 percent of U.S. power to come from “clean” sources by 2035, including renewables, natural gas, coal plants that trap carbon emissions, and nuclear power.

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The White House would like Congress to take up legislation to make the “clean energy standard” proposal a reality, and says it is working with members on both sides of the aisle to try to move forward.

But some conservative critics are already positioning the plan as a close relative of cap-and-trade bills and casting it as a costly new federal mandate — kisses of death in many GOP circles.

Critics argue last year’s climate change legislation died in the Senate after Republicans successfully labeled it a job-killer, even after supporters had argued it could help the economy.

If the White House is unsuccessful in its messaging battle to distance its plan from the cap-and-trade bill, the plan is unlikely to gain traction on Capitol Hill.

Criticism of Obama’s plan intensified at the end of last week.

Staff for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — a central figure in energy policy battles — circulated a new Wall Street Journal column in which Upton said Obama’s plans “smell like cap-and-trade all over again.” Upton also questions the need for a new federal mandate when many states already have renewable power standards.

Upton’s comments in The Wall Street Journal — and his office’s decision to circulate the column that savages Obama’s plan — up the ante from his initial reaction to Obama’s speech, in which the president also called for increased spending on green-energy R&D.  “Innovation is not measured in federal dollars spent or government mandates imposed,” Upton said Tuesday.

Across the Capitol, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — has steered clear of cap-and-trade comparisons but nonetheless expressed concern that the low-carbon energy plan would raise consumer costs.

In his State of the Union address, the president did not present the plan as a climate bill and avoided any mention of greenhouse gases or global warming.

At the same time, the White House is casting the “clean energy standard” as a way to position the U.S. as a leader in expanding green energy markets and creating jobs, part of Obama’s broader “innovation” agenda.

“We have already started important conversations on this effort and will continue to reach out to both sides of the aisle to discuss and develop the best legislative path forward,” a White House official tells E2.

A “fact sheet” the White House is circulating notes that it “give utilities the flexibility to generate clean energy wherever makes the most sense,” and claims the plan will help bring billions of dollars in investment capital into play. 

“By providing a clear signal towards a clean energy future, the president’s proposal will move that capital off of the sidelines and into the economy, mobilizing tens of billions of dollars each year in new investment and creating jobs across the country,” the fact sheet states.

While Obama’s plan drew some quick attacks, it’s also a move to the center. It could benefit the nuclear power and natural-gas industries, which have a strong GOP constituency, because it would allow both those energy sources to count toward the "clean" standard. Democrats in the past have pushed a more narrowly cast “renewable energy standard” for utilities.

Some Republicans appear interested in working with the White House. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last week that he intends to introduce a clean energy standard, although he also said Obama’s targets — which would basically double low-emissions power generation — might be too aggressive.

But Graham isn’t a guaranteed ally for the White House.

The South Carolina Republican, channeling many other GOP lawmakers, said blocking Environmental Protection Agency climate rules and expanding domestic oil drilling should also be in the mix.