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'Clean energy' advocates change their pitch

September 17, 2009 |  7:42 pm
As the President Obama-backed energy and climate bill moved through the House this spring, lawmakers reshaped it to hand financial concessions for coal-fired power plants, farmers, Rust Belt factories and several other interests. Among the groups left to grumble -- when the bill passed the chamber on a narrow vote -- were advocates of massive new spending on “clean energy” research.

The bill could potentially raise hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, but it directs only a sliver of that money to researching cheaper and more efficient clean energy technology that scientists and many lawmakers call crucial to U.S. hopes of curbing global warming and reducing dependence on imported oil.

The Senate is gearing up to tackle its own version of the climate bill, and some research advocates say that to avoid a repeat of their House experience, they’ll need to change their pitch and make energy technology as accessible and important in lawmakers’ minds as the other interest groups competing for slices of the bill’s revenue.

The advocates say their problem is message, not substance, a belief reflected in the call Thursday by a collection of advocates for the creation of a National Institutes of Energy, based on the National Institutes of Health.

The idea comes from the centrist Democratic group Third Way, a key player in the campaign to pass the energy bill, and the environmentalist Breakthrough Institute, which advocates intensive energy research and has panned the climate bill.

“The lack of a sustained national commitment to clean energy innovation is already limiting our access to a major economic driver of the next century,” the groups warn in a report issued Thursday. “Without immediate action to spur clean energy technologies and industries, the United States may also fall behind several Asian nations now aggressively positioning themselves to dominate the burgeoning clean energy sector.”

Obama proposed to fund much of that research from the climate bill, which centers on a so-called cap-and-trade system for limiting heat-trapping gas emissions. Major sources of the gases, such as power plants, would have to obtain permits for their emissions from an ever-shrinking pool, either by buying them on an open market or via government handout.

The House version of the bill gives nearly all the permits away free initially and dedicates about less-than-$2 billion a year for energy research. A collection of 34 Nobel Prize winners urged Obama in a letter this summer to push for more research money, while other research supports blamed the ways of Washington.

The “political trades that were required to pass [the climate bill] have left far too little revenue behind for the most crucial use of cap-trade money — investments to catalyze a radically cleaner energy future,” Mark Muro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has pushed for changes in the structure of federal energy research, wrote in an analysis of the bill this summer.

The energy institutes would be dedicated to helping renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal compete on price with fossil fuels such as coal and gas. The groups propose to fund them with $15 billion a year, about half of the current medical research budget of the NIH.

Republicans offered their own research plan in the House: an amendment to the climate bill that would have awarded competitive prizes for energy research goals. The amendment failed.

All but a handful of Republicans voted against the final bill.

-- Jim Tankersley