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A Green(er) Obama

Obama spoke about energy issues in New Hampshire today. (AP).

Not so long ago, Barack Obama was regarded warily by many environmentalists and advocates of aggressive measures to combat global warming. While his record was generally pro-environment, he voted for the 2005 energy bill, which was laden with subsidies for the oil industry, and later mystified environmentalists with his vocal support for huge new federal subsidies for converting coal to liquid transportation fuel, a technology that would benefit coal-rich areas like southern Illinois but would result in even more carbon emissions than does gasoline.

Today, after months of criticism from green corners, Obama is signaling that he has fully returned to the environmentalist fold, in a speech in Portsmouth, N.H., laying out his presidential campaign's energy plan. The plan is chock full of proposals favored by environmentalists and climate scientists, including a strict cap and trade program for carbon emissions, ambitious energy efficiency targets and billions of dollars in investments in energy research. And notably absent from the 10-page proposal is any mention of coal to liquid.

According to excerpts provided by his campaign, Obama is framing energy reform as another area where the Washington establishment as failed the country, an echo of his charges last week against those who, unlike him, did not stand up in opposition of the war in Iraq. While the speech does not name Hillary Clinton, it contains what appear to be veiled criticisms of her vote in 2005 against phased increases in vehicle mileage standards, and her past opposition to ethanol subsidies and mandates.

"There are some in this race who actually make the argument that the more time you spend immersed in the broken politics of Washington, the more likely you are to change it. I always find this a little amusing. I know that change makes for good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to actually make it happen, they didn't lead," Obama is expected to say. "When they had the chance to stand up and require automakers to raise their fuel standards, they refused. When they had multiple chances to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable fuels that we can literally grow right here in America, they said no."

Clinton, like many others in Congress, until recently opposed subsidies and mandates for the corn-based fuel as wasteful and likely to drive up the cost of gasoline, one reason she gave for opposing the 2005 energy bill. She has since softened her opposition to ethanol, a stance that has helped her in Iowa, where she is seeking caucus votes, and in upstate New York, which has experienced an ethanol boom of its own. Her campaign declined to comment today.

Obama's plan calls for a cap and trade system for reducing greenhouse gases that aims to slash carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050, the target many scientists say is necessary to slow warming, and one that has also been endorsed by Clinton and John Edwards. Under his plan, the government would establish an overall limit for carbon emissions, auction off emissions permits among companies and industries to stay within that limit, and allow companies to buy and sell permits based on which of them produce more or fewer emissions as time goes on. Most legislation offered to reduce carbon emissions takes this form, even though many economists believe a carbon tax would be simpler, if more difficult to sell politically. Obama's plan explicitly favors cap and trade over a carbon tax, saying it provides "maximum assurances that emissions will decline to desired levels" and "draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost-effective and flexible manner."

Obama would use much of the revenue from auctioning emissions permits to invest $150 billion over 10 years in research to develop the next generation of biofuels, plug-in hybrids and coal plants that could capturing and store emissions. Like Edwards, Obama proposes banning new coal-fired plants that lack the capacity to capture and store emissions, a stronger stance than he took just a few months ago, when he suggested that the cap and trade system alone would be sufficient to discourage traditional coal-fired plants. Unlike Edwards, who also argues against expanded use of nuclear energy, Obama acknowledges that reducing carbon emissions means using more nuclear energy, but says any expansion would require measures to improve nuclear fuel security and waste storage. "It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table," his plan states.

Obama, who sponsored legislation this year coupling tougher mileage standards with incentives for automakers, would establish a low-carbon fuel standard to further reduce oil reliance. He would spur wind and solar energy by requiring that 25 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2025. He would establish new rules and incentives for energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, and phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs by 2014. And he would reform transportation funding to build more public transit and restrain suburban sprawl.

Internationally, he would "re-engage" with the U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change, using the passage of an ambitious cap and trade system in America as leverage to goad emissions reductions around the globe. "Making the U.S. a leader in combating climate change will require the United States to get its own house in order," the plan states, "and most importantly, to do so with the urgency this brewing crisis demands."

--Alec MacGills

By Washington Post editors  |  October 8, 2007; 3:41 PM ET
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