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Dodging political snags, president pushes sensible energy plan

Energy policy has been of far greater concern to President Obama than to his recent predecessors in the White House, reflecting the emergence of climate change as a central issue today.

Yet his administration has pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that advances all energy resources, from oil and gas to nuclear power and renewables, without consistently indicating a priority among them.

Of course, the president’s policies reflect political reality today, where Congress is sharply polarized over energy issues and climate change. Any president must work with other policymakers to do what is politically and economically feasible at the time.

Despite these constraints, Obama’s energy policies on the whole are balanced and forward-looking. They move the nation in the right direction of reducing reliance on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas as we come to terms with climate change.

What has he done? He has helped to revive the nuclear power industry with federal loan guarantees, and for the first time in over three decades, new plants are under construction. They are very expensive, but the industry’s renewal could lead to cheaper and safer reactor designs that offer an alternative to fossil fuels, which supply over 80 percent of the energy we now use.

The president also has fostered an increase in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas on public lands, and he has supported offshore oil and gas drilling, combined with regulatory reforms. This includes drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast, although not nearly to the extent that the oil and gas industry has sought.

One result has been abundant, cheaper and cleaner natural gas that is rapidly replacing dirtier coal as the fossil fuel of choice for power plants.

There also has been a 94 percent increase in domestically produced oil during Obama’s tenure. As a result, the United States is now much less dependent on imported oil.

The president has strongly backed permitting for large wind and solar installations on public lands in the West, and he has supported generous Department of Energy funding for a range of promising new technologies, especially renewables.

On the whole the program has been remarkably effective, and federal, state and private investment together have led to a 252 percent increase in solar and wind power since Obama took office.

Two key energy-related regulatory decisions also stand out. The administration’s new vehicle fuel economy standards already have improved miles per gallon – up 21 percent – and urban air quality, with much more to come. New efficiency standards also are being developed for heavy trucks and buses.

Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan for coal-fired power plants is likely to sharply reduce climate-altering carbon emissions and improve air quality.

The plan calls for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide by 32 percent by 2030 and increasing use of renewable resources for electricity generation, with many choices left to the states.

According to the EPA’s analysis, the public health and climate benefits greatly outweigh compliance costs while also creating thousands of new jobs.

The EPA also has proposed new regulations to cut methane leakages from oil and gas production by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. Methane is the major component of natural gas, but also a powerful greenhouse gas.

Environmentalists argue that these and other restrictions on energy production do not go far enough. They also think that the expansion of oil and gas fracturing might well offset many of the gains from the president’s other climate change initiatives.

There also is concern that new oil and gas drilling could well pose significant threats to fragile ecosystems, particularly in the Arctic Ocean.

There are many possible impacts from all of these decisions. So we can only judge the ultimate balance represented by Obama’s energy policies over time.

Michael Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.