This week, TheStreet and RealMoney will be exploring the aftermath of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy filing and the ensuing market chaos it brought to a head a year ago. This guest column by Erik Mielke, an MPA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and a former oil sector analyst at Merrill Lynch, appeared yesterday on RealMoney. Click here for a free trial, and enjoy incisive commentary all day, every day.

A year after the fall of Lehman Brothers, Washington is not only busy overhauling the regulatory framework of the financial sector and kick-starting the economy, it's also embroiled in a wrangle over health care reform. As such, it's tempting to dismiss the current political risk to the U.S. energy sector as low or declining.

The question we must ask ourselves, therefore, is whether President Obama can possibly have the stomach for energy reform after the health care imbroglio? Well, yes, he can.

Climate change -- and with it, energy policy -- is set to return to the spotlight as the world prepares for the Copenhagen climate summit in December. And if the past year is anything to go by, the administration is determined to change U.S. energy policy regardless of other economic or political challenges it may face at the time. As a result, it would be a mistake to equate no news with no change.

Energy was one of the early leading issues during the election campaign, spurred on by ever-higher commodity prices. The post-Lehman financial meltdown and the collapse in oil prices changed the campaign dynamic and energy was relegated down the political agenda. But not for long.

In June 2009, with the president's support, the House passed a comprehensive energy and climate bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill). The bill, which has not been approved by the Senate, sets an important marker for the Copenhagen summit and has significantly increased the likelihood that a global deal on issues such as alternative energy and carbon emissions can be reached. So, expect U.S. energy policy to resurface in the next couple of months, even if the Senate drags its feet on the energy bill.

But there is more to the debate than just climate change. How the U.S. should exploit its own resources and the issue of oil industry taxation will likely feature prominently as well. Here are the three things I'm looking for:

1. No Political Dash-for-Gas

Politics continue to favor coal over natural gas, despite the latter's cleaner credentials and recent domestic abundance from shale and tight-gas discoveries. The new administration has been reluctant to embrace natural gas as a replacement for coal for three main reasons:
i. resistance to replace one fossil fuel with another,

ii. concerns about the environmental impact of unconventional gas exploitation, especially water issues, and

iii. coal has more embedded political support in Congress.
In short, do not expect politics to save natural gas prices from current sub-$3 levels; only improvement in supply/demand economics can achieve that.

This is an issue with potential to affect the E&P companies, such as:

2. Tax the Rich -- and Oil Companies Are an Easy Target

The oil industry is an obvious easy political target, especially the larger integrated companies. Current budget proposals are a far cry from the pre-election windfall-tax rhetoric, but that doesn't mean the industry is out of the woods. The fact remains that the growing fiscal deficit will need to be reduced, and the oil industry's financial health sticks out like sore thumb, making it a tempting target for selective taxation.

Names to watch for vulnerability here include:

3. Carbon Pricing: A Major Challenge for the Refiners

The U.S. refining industry has been hit harder than most by the U.S. recession as refining margins and share prices collapsed in 2008. The introduction of carbon pricing could further hurt the sector.

The Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House included a transitory arrangement for the refiners' own carbon emissions, which should ease some of the pain. But the impact goes deeper, especially if the refiners are required to acquire emission rights for gasoline and other petroleum end-products, which appears very likely. Managing those emission credits could introduce significant additional hedging risk and transaction costs for an industry already operating in survival mode.

Stocks to watch in this regard include:

In summary, energy and climate change policy are still top priorities for the administration. Washington is likely to focus on energy again in the next few months, notwithstanding the global financial crisis, the recession and the arduous health care reform. Political risk for the energy industry may be obscured by competing events, but is neither distant nor insignificant.