House energy chairman cool to proposals for 'clean' energy standard

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on Monday criticized the notion of a federal “clean energy standard” for electric utilities, comments that highlight the political hurdles facing a central piece of the White House energy agenda.

In a wide-ranging interview with E2, Upton noted that more than two-dozen states have renewable electricity standards tailored to their “state dynamics,” and that it would be difficult to overlay a federal mandate.

“For me, the bottom line is that states have done it, and it seems to be working OK,” Upton said in his House office. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

President Obama’s State of the Union speech last month called for a “clean” standard in which the nation would obtain 80 percent of its power from low-carbon sources — including renewables and nuclear power — by 2035.

But Upton said the time frame for permitting new reactors is a barrier as well. He also expressed concerns about costs and the ability of the power grid to accommodate the plan.

Upton’s critique comes as House Democrats are urging negotiations over a “clean” standard.

In a letter to Upton Monday, Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) urges Upton to work with Democrats on a bipartisan “clean energy standard” bill.

“If properly constructed, a CES could provide regulatory certainty for utilities and a needed market signal that will encourage investment and boost innovation in clean energy sources,” states the letter from Waxman and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who heads the Energy and Power subcommittee.

The letter notes that the concept of a clean standard has received GOP support in the past.

Committee Republicans floated the idea during the mark-up of a big Democratic climate change and energy bill in May of 2009. It was offered as part of a GOP alternative to Democratic cap-and-trade legislation (which also contained a renewables mandate), and Upton and a slew of other committee Republicans voted for the GOP plan.

The “clean energy standard” proposal represents a move to the center by the White House. because in the past Democrats and Obama have called for a more narrowly crafted renewable electricity standard that would not credit sources like nuclear, and coal plants that trap carbon emissions (a technology that is not commercialized).

But Upton has called for greater development of all forms of domestic energy — an “all of the above” approach — while criticizing the idea of broad new federal programs. He repeated the themes in a Detroit News op-ed Saturday that praised the late former President Reagan.

“In contrast with Reagan's pro-growth energy policies, President Obama's energy moves are Big Government micromanaging straight out of the '70s playbook,” Upton wrote.