Hillary Clinton
Efficiency and permit auctions and R&D, oh my!

Hillary Clinton released her comprehensive energy and climate plan today. It is thoughtful, comprehensive, and though disappointingly conventional in a few areas, inspiringly bold in others.

With the release of Clinton’s plan, all three Democratic frontrunners for the presidency now have visionary, far-reaching energy plans that would fundamentally reorient the country away from carbon-intensive energy and toward energy efficiency and renewables. It is difficult to think of a another policy issue on which the ground has shifted so far, so fast, and difficult to think of another policy issue on which the gulf between the two political parties is so vast and striking.

Here are a few of the highlights:

• A cap-and-trade system, aiming for 80% emission reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, that auctions 100% of pollution credits.

This position — once on the extreme end of the activist wish list — is now the shared position of the Democratic presidential frontrunners. Remarkable.

The revenue from the auction would go to easing the impact on low- and middle-income families, stimulating the market for energy efficiency and renewables, and (this is somewhat vague — I’m trying to get more on it) offering transition assistance to energy-intensive industries.

• Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency

More than perhaps any other candidate, Clinton bases her entire plan around efficiency, the fastest, easiest way to get emission reductions. Whether it’s bold new CAFE targets (55mpg by 2030!), new green building standards and incentives, a Connie Mae program (stolen, with credit, from Gore) to help Americans finance home efficiency projects, decoupling utility profits from electricity supply, providing incentives for smart grid technology, or phasing out incandescent lights, Clinton has obviously gotten the efficiency religion. This is a sign, I submit, of some very good advice from advisors (including an advisor named Bill).

• Investment, investment, investment

This is not just about regulations and restrictions. Clinton’s plan would raise a great deal of money to invest in green energy and efficiency, partly from rescinding tax breaks offered to oil companies, partly from auctioning pollution credits. She would double energy R&D, offer special bonds to individuals and industries for efficiency investments, make the production tax credit for solar and wind permanent (which is huge), and directly stimulate the development of smart grids and plug-in hybrids. Spreading money around like this not only raises the chances for success, it also makes the plan a much easier political sell.

• Making energy a core concern of government

It’s easy to release a plan; what’s hard is making the plan a top priority of the federal government once you take power. Clinton’s plan would create a National Energy Council, modeled on the National Security Council, to coordinate action across federal departments and agencies.

• Focus on shared responsibilities and economic opportunities

Clinton’s plans does a great deal to a) stress the enormous number of jobs that can be created around clean tech, and b) make it clear that not just the federal government but industries and individuals share the responsibility for tackling this problem. This is just the right balance of rhetoric.

Now, on to some worries:

• Biofuel subsidies

Clinton is far from alone in this, but the notion that we can get “60 billion gallons of home-grown biofuels” by 2030 is a dangerous fantasy. For one thing, home-grown biofuels are almost inevitably going to be more expensive than foreign-grown, which means an expensive and inefficient form of protectionism. And it’s just not physically possible to reach that target. Trying will exacerbate all the familiar environmental problems associate with biofuels (well covered on this site — I won’t rehash them here). Clinton’s going to say more about her biofuels policy tomorrow. Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. But I’m not hopeful.

• Clean coal subsidies

Again, what’s bad here is bad in every energy plan from every candidate. Indeed, hers is somewhat better, since instead of indiscriminately throwing money for “research” at the coal industry, she would specifically fund 10 CCS demonstration projects. If those don’t pan out, that gives her leverage to finally move away from coal entirely.

• Anemic support for public transportation

It’s good that Clinton sees fit to call it out for special attention, but a billion a year for public transportation falls woefully short of what’s needed.

• Nothing about a shift in foreign aid or support for adaptation in developing countries

Nothing in the “international leadership” section of the plan discusses the moral obligation of developed countries to assist developing countries — which will be the hardest hit by changes that are already locked into the climate system — in preparing for and coping with climate change. This is inexcusable.

Anyway, I give the plan an A overall — it could certainly be improved, but as a campaign plank it is fine, fine work, moving the ball forward rather than hiding safely in the middle. Clinton’s team deserves kudos.