Politics: The State of the Union Is All About Energy—Not Climate

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Tonight’s State of the Union may be remembered as the moment when the White House stopped working on climate—and started working on energy.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Whatever initiatives President Obama chooses to launch with his annual speech, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely keep working on greenhouse gas regulations, the State Department will stay engaged in international climate negotiations and more aggressive states and cities will keep pushing their own green agendas. But there’s no avoiding the fact that a candidate who spoke of climate change as an existential threat on the 2008 campaign trail—and whose diplomats were still promising to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 as recently as last month in Cancun—didn’t mention the term “climate change,” nor “global warming,” nor “carbon.” As Climate Progress‘s baleful Joe Romm put it:

These omissions were depressingly predictable (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?“) and thus, predictably, depressing to climate hawks.

But the good news! The first third of Obama’s speech was a paean to the importance of clean energy—both as means to achieve national security (an old canard), but more importantly, as the key to a more prosperous and job-filled future. Obama emphasized that the country faced a “Sputnik moment,” one where its leadership would be challenged in every field, but nowhere so much as in energy. From the text:

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

And the President offered concrete steps. He set an ambitious goal of ensuring that 80% of America’s electricity would come from clean energy sources by 2035. And to fund that transition, he was willing to take on the fossil fuel industry:

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

Republicans in the audience didn’t exactly jump behind that one, but it might have been the most stunning line of the speech. Past Presidents have promised again and again to get America off foreign oil. Former President George W. Bush, who made his money in the petroleum industry, told Congress in his 2006 State of the Union speech that “America is addicted to oil”—then did nothing about it. But Obama has actually charted a path away from oil and other fossil fuels.

At least, that’s what it looks like. On closer examination, those goals aren’t so ambitious. That 80% by 2035 pledge covers electricity, not transport, where the vast bulk of our oil consumption is used. And Obama wasn’t confining his definition of clean to just renewable power:

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

Nuclear is low-carbon, but it’s extremely expensive and is opposed by many in the environmental community. Clean coal—meaning coal where carbon emissions can be captured and sequestered—is still in the research stage, and some of the initial projects have run into problems. Natural gas, thanks to new shale deposits, is plentiful and falling in cost—but there are fierce debates over the local environmental risks posed by hydrofracking. (On the same day as the President’s speech, the hydrofracking documentary Gasland was nominated for an Oscar.) Though natural gas does burn much cleaner than other fossil fuels and has a lower carbon footprint, its debatable just how clean it really is—ProPublica reported today that natural gas may only be 25% cleaner than coal, and perhaps even less so. And the U.S. already gets more than 40% of its electricity from the “clean energy” sources Obama mentioned.

Still, most mainstream environmental groups were thrilled that Obama put clean energy—and the jobs such a push might be able to create—front and center in the speech. As BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster said in a statement:

Tonight, President Obama asked Americans to reinvent ourselves for the clean energy economy. By challenging us to invest in clean energy, modernize our infrastructure, embrace high-speed rail, recommit to our educational institutions, and expand access to high-speed internet, he set a path that will create millions of new jobs, protect the environment, and increase America’s energy independence.

Groups like the Breakthrough Institute that have trumpeted research and innovation over regulation and carbon capping had reason to crow. (And knowing those guys, they certainly will.) Obama’s speech framed clean energy as an important cog in an economic transformation—the “fight to win the future,” in the X-Filesian formulation—rather than as an environmental issue. Given the broad but often shallow support for climate action—and the very real fear people have of the U.S. slipping into a permanent state of high unemployment—that’s the way to go, though the Republican response evinced little support for the idea of investing now to prepare the country for a brighter economic future. (Surely those deficit hawks would be in favor cutting oil subsidies, right? Er, right?)

After the speech had ended, the White House released a series of fact sheets covering specific energy and energy innovation programs Obama would look to strengthen in the coming years. (Download PDFs of the energy sheet here.) The Administration pledged to more than double support for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E),  double the number of energy innovation hubs and double investment in energy efficiency. Those targets, if achieved, will help get us there—but it he’ll have to battle through Republican opposition and take that case to the public. He’ll need their support, because without it Obama is just telling us to do more with less—and the citizens of this recession-scarred land should know how that usually turns out.