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Published February 22, 2011, 09:07 AM

Obama makes energy policy progress

WASHINGTON — Energy policy was near the top of President Obama’s agenda in his recent State of the Union address — a topic so politically toxic last year that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin ran a campaign ad in which he shot a “cap-and-trade” bill with a rifle. Republicans joined Manchin and other coal-state Democrats in opposing the energy plan Democratic leaders pressed in 2010. Cap-and-trade was a desirable policy, but Congress passed nothing.

WASHINGTON — Energy policy was near the top of President Obama’s agenda in his recent State of the Union address — a topic so politically toxic last year that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin ran a campaign ad in which he shot a “cap-and-trade” bill with a rifle. Republicans joined Manchin and other coal-state Democrats in opposing the energy plan Democratic leaders pressed in 2010. Cap-and-trade was a desirable policy, but Congress passed nothing.

So this year, Obama has endorsed two concepts more modest than cap-and-trade. The first is establishing a clean energy standard expected to require that American utilities derive a certain amount of the electricity they provide from clean sources — the president mentioned 80 percent by 2035.

Setting a standard

If America is to have such a standard, this is the right call. It widens the appeal of the policy to Republicans, but it also is sensible, since nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases and natural gas produces about half the carbon emissions of coal. A well-designed policy would take advantage of that difference while giving less credit for natural gas than for truly renewable fuels. In the long run, any significant dependence on carbon-emitting fuels is dangerous, but replacing coal with natural gas may provide breathing room for cleaner-energy technologies to become more affordable.

The effectiveness of the president’s energy plan will depend on a slew of details. Where will the money come from, and is it enough? How will the government enforce a federal clean-energy standard? Given political realities, though, Obama has laid out two potentially useful paths to progress.

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