National council vital to Obama's energy plan

By ROSALIE WESTENSKOW, UPI Correspondent  |  Nov. 14, 2008 at 1:00 PM
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A National Energy Council could be a key ingredient in the next administration's plan to wean the nation off Middle Eastern oil and mitigate climate change, experts say.

Patterned after the National Economic and National Security Councils, this body would bring together representatives from a number of different government agencies to deal with the increasingly important, and increasingly complex, energy issues facing the United States.

The idea is gaining popularity in a number of circles, winning formal support from several policy organizations and think tanks. This week alone three groups released energy policy action plans for President-elect Barack Obama, highlighting the importance of instituting an energy council.

In order to adequately address energy, an overhaul of the 10 energy-related Cabinet agencies and several congressional committees will be needed, according to the Brookings Institution, a policy organization that recommended a National Energy and Climate Council in the "Memo to the President" it released Tuesday.

"Specifically, the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency will need to be redesigned to advance the clean energy investments (Obama has) proposed, reorder policy priorities towards energy efficiency, and develop less intensively carbon-based fuels and … technologies," the memo said.

Energy policy involves too many players for one entity to take it on, and an energy council would allow for cooperation between all the agencies and groups involved, said Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, an initiative headed by the University of Colorado that was released Thursday.

"A group like this could coordinate (energy policy) efforts," Becker told United Press International. "Otherwise you have agencies competing for jurisdictions and stepping on each others' toes."

The plan presented by Becker and his colleagues recommends the council be comprised of the secretaries of the departments of Energy, State, Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security, Labor, Agriculture, Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and Treasury; the administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration; and the directors of the National Science Foundation, the Climate Change Science Program and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The council would coordinate implementation of the president's energy plan, oversee research on climate change, conduct international meetings on a global greenhouse gas emissions agreement and work with local and state officials.

Although new legislation is needed to help move energy policy in the right direction, Becker said the White House doesn't need more laws to take action immediately.

"The executive branch has the authority to take significant action to change our energy portfolio and reduce our emissions without permission from Congress," Becker said. "The authority to do that has already been given (to the administration) by past legislation."

The U.S. government currently consumes more energy than any other single entity, Becker said. As a result, the Obama administration could take the first step toward a low-carbon economy through example, said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade organization.

"In addition to bringing a puppy to the White House, we hope (Obama) will put up some wind, solar and geothermal (technology) -- really show what it will take as individual citizens to change our energy policy," Resch said.

Representatives from the renewable energy industry, including Resch, voiced encouragement for the creation of a National Energy Council. However, the entity could cause more harm than good if it's led by the wrong people, said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association.

"We don't need the leaders of yesterday's fossil fuel industries leading these initiatives," Gawell said.

Others think the idea simply represents another ineffective government organization, including Ben Lieberman, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"We have enough energy bureaucracy in Washington as it is," Lieberman told UPI. "Energy breakthroughs really happen in the private sector."

In fact, the executive branch already has a group devoted to energy policy, established by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. The Energy Task Force has been embroiled in controversy for including oil executives in meetings and policy development without disclosing their input.

However, the National Energy Council being suggested for the Obama administration is a completely different concept, said Kit Batten, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a left-leaning think tank that released its "progressive blueprint" for the next president on Wednesday.

"Specifically linking energy policy with global warming and national security … that's very different from what we have now," Batten said. "(The council) would make sure that national security policy not only looks at sources of oil, but also looks at how not addressing global warming will pose national security threats."

Whether the National Energy Council becomes a reality is up to Obama, but the chances look good, as one of its biggest proponents is heading up the transition team for the next administration. John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, could help push the energy council idea to the fore.

"John Podesta is very familiar with this idea and is supportive of it," Batten told UPI.

Whether such a council succeeds obviously depends on the next administration, said former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., one of the founders of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

"It's up to the president," he said.

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