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A Times Editorial

Getting to a clean energy future

Last week's ruling by federal regulators that environmental groups could challenge Progress Energy's plans to build a nuclear plant in Levy County underlines one of the roadblocks the United States faces in addressing climate change. A nation that still cannot forge a predictable framework for siting, financing, building and regulating even established technologies such as nuclear power has a tall order ahead in championing a green-technology revolution. Whether the Levy site is appropriate needs to be left to regulatory review. But Congress needs to understand the United States will not be the leader on climate change until it brings coherence to its own national energy policy.

President Barack Obama had hoped to walk away from last week's G-8 summit in Italy with a pledge by the world's biggest industrial economies to vastly reduce emissions of global-warming greenhouse gases. But poorer nations balked for the same reasons that have forced the president to wheel and deal on climate legislation at home. There is no argument that global warming poses enormous and ever more immediate consequences. But there is also almost universal concern for how reversing course will affect consumers, jobs and a nation's ability to compete.

Obama had hoped to use the Group of Eight summit as a backdrop to forge a consensus on global cuts on emissions in advance of the international climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. The United States and Europe wanted an agreement to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2050. Obama chaired a side meeting in Italy among nations that together emit four-fifths of the world's greenhouse gases. But developing nations, led by China and India, refused. They complain that the world's leading economic powers have had a centurieslong head start at industrialization and that it is unfair now to constrain poorer states for the environmental damage they did not cause.

The setback in Italy is not a deal-killer. But it does frame what Obama needs to do to avoid flopping in Copenhagen. The first is to arrive with leverage. The administration can hardly be proud that the House barely passed a climate bill even after weakening and bloating it with billions of dollars of handouts to wavering Democrats and special interests. The Senate fight looks even tougher. The president will need to ensure the bill drives down emissions while spurring investments in clean technology that all nations can build on.

The administration and its allies need to tie climate change closer to national security. The issue is not merely reducing the reliance of both developed and developing nations on oil imports, especially from the volatile Mideast. Making more nations energy-independent could tamp down provocations by Russia, Iran and Venezuela and help nudge North Korea into the international fold.

Finally, the administration needs to give business in this global economy some regulatory certainty. Take nuclear power, for just one example. At the very time the industry is looking to make its biggest leap in decades, the federal government is stalled on a national repository to store nuclear waste. Federal officials cited Progress Energy's plans for disposing of waste as one area of concern with the Levy plant. Nuclear waste is currently held in more than 120 locations in 39 states (the United States has 104 operating reactors). If nuclear is going to contribute more than its current 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, then the nation needs a responsible way to store waste.

The Progress Energy case is a reminder that energy regulation needs to evolve. That's why the Senate's debate over the climate bill is an opportunity to plug holes in America's energy policy. But it is also a key tool for inspiring an international regulatory model that offers hope of bringing big polluters like China and India to the bargaining table.

Getting to a clean energy future 07/12/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 12, 2009 8:37am]
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