Politics Threaten Obama’s Energy Plans – 2/8/16

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court temporarily halted an initiative put forth by the Obama administration which would limit carbon emissions from power plants. Additionally, President Obama has submitted a budget to Congress widely dismissed by Republicans and considered  “dead-on-arrival”. Politics of this kind threaten to derail Obama’s ambitious energy aims.

Opposition to the new regulations comes primarily from Republican-led states and fossil fuel related businesses. This leadership is not surprising given that new EPA rule would disproportionately hurt coal-dependent states such as West Virginia and Wyoming. Party politics may have set the sides for the court battle as well as the outcome since the stay came from the five conservative justices with no explanation or debate of merit. The decision came as a surprise to proponents of the plan since stays are rarely granted. Compliance wasn’t required until 2022, but states were to submit their plans to the EPA by September or seek an extension.

The Clean Power Plan will continue seeing court challenges for years. Although the Supreme Court’s decision is a setback for emissions reduction in the US, it is only the beginning of a larger legal trainwreck set to last well into the next president’s term(s). And even if a Republican were to take office and take immediate steps to counter the work of the Obama administration, the process of stopping what is already in motion could take years. The EPA will be proving it has the authority to institute the new rules while utilities and fossil fuel producers make the case against it.

Fives states have made clear their intention to follow the new rules regardless of the final decision on the Clean Power Plan case. Colorado, New York, California, Virginia, and Washington officials have stated their intention to move forward with their part in the plan for 32% emissions cuts by 2030. At least 18 states will defend the plan against 27 states filing lawsuits in opposition. With party lines deciding the sides in the debate over climate change, it looks extremely unlikely that the legislative side of government will have half the impact of judicial and executive actions.

As party politics continue to divide both the House and the Senate of what has commonly been called a “do-nothing” congress, President Obama’s budget proposing new taxes on oil to pay for clean-energy was considered “dead-on-arrival”. The budget reflects a commitment to funding the EPA, clean energy projects, and the Highway Trust Fund via a tax of $10.25 per barrel of oil. Serving mostly to illustrate the issues the Obama administration sees as most pressing, highlights of the plan include: infrastructure spending paid for by oil company taxation; pilot projects for autonomous vehicles; R&D funds for clean energy, biomedical research, and basic research; and funds for boosting renewable energy adoption, space exploration, food security, etc. Entering his last year as president, Obama has used his last budget proposal as a means of laying out his priorities and what he hopes to see the next president continue.

The actual budgetary constraints of the US are much less interesting than the moonshot plan submitted by Obama. The majority (80%) of total federal expenditures are locked up in Treasury payments on debt, spending on Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security commitments, and Defense. Short of a legislative miracle, the next president is not likely to see significant changes in the distribution of tax dollars.

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