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Obama urged a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change. What might that look like, and is there any chance of it happening?

February 18, 2013
  • Demonstrators march to Los Angeles City Hall during the "Forward on Climate"rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis.
Demonstrators march to Los Angeles City Hall during the "Forward… (David McNew / Getty Images )

Quick: Name one thing mainstream Republicans and Democrats agree on when it comes to energy policy. Other than that both sides would like it to be cheaper, you're probably drawing a blank.

That's why there was something a little quixotic in President Obama's call last week, during his State of the Union address, urging Congress to get together and pursue "a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change." It's pretty far-fetched to imagine congressional Republicans pursuing a costly new program, market based or not, positing the solution to a climate problem many believe don't exist.

The depth of the ideological chasm on this issue was expressed nicely just a week before Obama's speech, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose position as ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources makes her a key architect of her party's energy policy, put out a 121-page blueprint outlining her vision. This sets up an amusing thought exercise: What would a comprehensive, bipartisan energy bill look like?

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For one thing, it wouldn't be 121 pages. Murkowski's plan shows that the similarities between GOP and Democratic thought would take up only a page or two. Not that many of the goals aren't the same: Both sides favor improved energy efficiency, increased independence from OPEC and other foreign sellers, and more financing for "advanced" power. But the ways they would approach these goals are poles apart.

In essence, Democrats would like to combat climate change and cut fossil fuel use by putting a price on greenhouse gases, improving energy efficiency and funding power research and development, while Republicans would like to lower energy costs and decrease foreign reliance by drilling in more places. There are a few minor points of agreement on this scale. Some Democrats, for example, might be persuaded to pursue more nuclear power, and Murkowski's proposal to extend master limited partnerships (a type of corporate entity, currently limited mainly to firms that extract natural resources, combining the tax benefits of limited partnerships with access to cheaper financing) to "clean" power projects could appeal to both parties. That's not much to build a comprehensive energy bill on, though.

During the State of the Union, Obama promised that if Congress fails to step up on energy, his administration will. That probably means more regulation of greenhouse gases, more funding for R&D, more incentives for energy efficiency and so on. Meanwhile, gamely plowing ahead despite an absence of support beyond party lines, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Feb. 14 proposed a bill to impose a carbon tax, something this page has been urging since 2007 but whose current prospects look dim. This combination of administrative action and congressional paralysis has characterized Obama's first term, and short of major changes in Congress, we might as well get used to it.

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