Obama working to make energy vision a reality

March 1, 2009 By and    

President Barack Obama is wasting no time putting his stamp on energy policy as he promised during his campaign.

At his first event at the White House as president, he said, “It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs.”

He then ordered his administration to place new fuel-efficiency guidelines for the auto industry to cover vehicles sold in 2011, and ordered a review of auto emission standards as part of a plan to regulate emissions tied to global warming.

His interior secretary, Ken Salazar, canceled oil and gas leases on public lands in Utah, signaling a shift from the Bush administration’s approach to public land use for energy exploration.

In another clear line away from the previous administration, Salazar also said this new administration will consider proposals for offshore wind farms in the outer continental shelf along with oil and gas proposals as was done in the past.

Stimulus package
Most significant is the just-signed $787 billion stimulus package. The president is putting billions of dollars on the line toward making his energy vision a reality. As he said during the campaign and says now, America must move away from using 19th and 20th century means to battle 21st century needs. He considers the stimulus bill as a down payment on the transformation.

His down payment includes substantial funds to double America’s renewable energy generating capacity to power 6 million homes; modernize electric transmission lines and install 40 million consumer “smart” electric meters; weatherize 2 million homes and 75 percent of federal buildings; provide insulation, windows and furnaces to public housing; and increase the alternative fuel infrastructure tax credit.

While the propane industry is not a direct beneficiary outlined in the stimulus package, there may be opportunity in helping fuel, literally, the transformation. With billions of dollars going toward rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, propane may prove invaluable on construction sites, in transportation and equipment and appliances.

In addition, the new law extends small-business incentives to allow for a bigger upfront deduction of equipment purchases. If, in this economy, propane businesses are able to purchase new equipment (this includes computers, vehicles and machinery), they may be able to deduct the entire cost up to $250,000. Last year’s bonus depreciation also was extended for businesses of all sizes.

While he reached out to Republicans early in the process and agreed to their wish to increase the size of the tax cuts in the stimulus package, only three Republicans in the Senate supported the final bill; no House Republicans supported the bill. The bill passed with the barest veto-proof minimum to prevent a filibuster.

On the surface, it may seem like partisan gridlock, but President Obama may have already brought change to Washington. Conservative-leaning organizations like the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) supported his efforts. He knows he can get the votes necessary to pass legislation with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. What is different in this administration is his willingness and ability to reach out, regardless of party, to get the support he needs.

The next big energy issue
Obama’s political skills will again be put to test on climate-change legislation. While the stimulus package didn’t directly address regulating carbon dioxide and the greenhouse gases that affect climate, the president highlighted the tie between economics and energy security in his selling of the bill to Congress and the public every time he mentioned green jobs and greening the economy.

Senate and House leaders have said climate-change legislation is a top priority this spring, knowing that the administration will be sending its negotiators this December to the United Nations’ international climate-change pact in Denmark. At that meeting the world’s leaders are expected to draft an agreement to replace the Kyoto accord. During the Bush administration, the United States withdrew from that agreement, and the Obama administration wants to have a significant role in the negotiation this year. To meet the timetable, House and Senate Democratic leaders need to push the legislation through their committees quickly.

To do that, Obama will have to court Republicans who, based on their chosen role throughout the stimulus bill process, don’t seem in the mood to offer support. But if Republicans oppose the administration carte blanche on this or other issues, they risk losing what public support they have now.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; and Arlen Spector, R-Pa., supported the president on the stimulus package; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has already opposed his party on climate change, may join the president on this issue, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., may do the same.

What President Obama has figured out is that changing the environment in Washington is more than getting Republican Party votes. It is how he goes about working with Congress and also picking up support from traditional Republican stalwarts like the NAM, chamber and other interests as he did on the stimulus package. If he can continue to reach out in this way, he may not need House Republican votes after all. LPG

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics, and can be reached at lisabontempo@msn.com.

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