Hillary Clinton took center stage at the 7th annual National Clean Energy Summit last month in Las Vegas. The conference brings together economic and political minds to work through the policy agenda on energy efficiency and renewable sources. It is hard to detangle political implications and preferences from the energy business at summits like these. Clinton’s keynote speech could have sounded like a home run for some folks and a fourth-quarter fumble for others. To this end, lofty goals set in the season of political promises do not carry too much weight in my book. Nonetheless, here are some takeaways:
First and foremost, Clinton asserted her support for President Obama’s 2013 climate action plan, which includes increases in all sources of domestic energy (renewables and natural gas especially), support for transportation technologies, and restrictions on carbon emissions at large fossil-fuel power plants. Neither Obama nor Clinton has satisfied environmental scientists, who quickly point to a lack of leadership on the Keystone XL pipeline and large expansions in on- and offshore oil drilling, both of which threaten to leave an oily legacy for the administration under which she served as Secretary of State for 4 years.
Much of Clinton’s points were made with regard to foreign policy, stressing that international agreements were critical to successfully addressing climate change. This all comes just 2 weeks before a United Nations special session in New York City meant to discuss climate issues, which was met by the People’s Climate March, a grassroots climate demonstration with upwards of 310,000 attendees. The next major U.N. Conference of the Parties, at which these international agreements would originate, will be held in Paris in December 2015. To this end, Clinton called out support for a “strong agreement, applicable to all.” Stepping up to a big policy next year in Paris would “show the world that we are serious about meeting our obligations and show… the U.S. can still do big things.”
Clinton played to the energy efficiency crowd, saying that energy efficiency retrofits are “the most overlooked opportunity in our country.” Indeed, energy efficiency is critical to reducing emissions and creating domestic green jobs. EE measures are also the least politically challenging component of any climate-change reduction agenda. ACEEE stated in a 2012 report that the United States can reduce its energy demand 40%‒60% over all sectors by implementing energy efficiency improvements by 2050.
More divisive is her support for fracked natural gas, a last best hope for fossil fuels. She was cautious on the subject, stating that there should be some regulation of methane leaks. She also alluded to regulations to increase safety, including “not to drill when the risks are too high.” Fracking has come under criticism from energy experts who point out that in order for natural gas to have lower lifecycle emissions than coal, fugitive methane emissions from extraction and transmission must be kept as low as 3.2%. Achieving that would demand new technology investment and deployment in most places. That’s not to mention the as-yet unaddressed health consequences of the processes. Others point to its low combustion emissions as a worthwhile pursuit, and they are happy to support decreasing dependence on foreign energy for economic and national security purposes.
Again, it is worth noting that Clinton is an unannounced presidential hopeful for the 2016 election cycle, and much of this talk certainly fits into some plan for lining up the right supporters. Nonetheless, if it’s energy efficiency she wants, we won’t stand in the way!