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Obama SOTU Addresses Clean Energy, Environmental Policy

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama clearly laid out his energy agenda in Tuesday night's State of the Union address, promising "responsible development" of domestic oil and natural gas even as he pledged to invest in renewable energy. “We don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy,” he said.

Though he made no mention of Solyndra, the bankrupt solar company that benefited from a government loan program, or Keystone XL, the controversial oil pipeline he rejected to much celebration and criticism last week, the president showed political backbone in refusing to back down from his commitment to investing in developing renewables.

Obama vowed to incentivize manufacturers to make energy upgrades, as well as to green the carbon footprint of the nation's military. He announced that the Department of Defense will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes per year.

“I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes,” said Obama. It’s an area where the government has significant money to spend.

“Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail," the president said. "But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy ... I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.”

It was the closest the president came to referencing Solyndra, the California solar panel manufacturer and Department of Energy loan recipient that went belly-up last year. Republican lawmakers have repeatedly used the company's failure to try to undermine the administration’s investments in renewable energy. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, has led the charge, arguing that the government should have never invested in the manufacturer because "we can't compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines."

The reality, of course, is more complex, but Stearns' logic was precisely the sort of defeatism that the president boldly dismissed.

“We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough,” Obama said. “It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.”

The comments came as part of a larger meditation on energy policy, in which the president pulled a leaf from the Republican playbook, pledging to expand drilling and increase other forms of domestic energy production as a way to create more American jobs.

“Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy,” Obama said in the address. “Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.”

In the same breath, he emphasized the importance of breaking the country's dependence on foreign oil.

“Last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years,” the president said to hearty applause. “But with only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy –- a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”

U.S. crude oil production increased from 5.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 5.5 million barrels per day in 2010, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Over the next 10 years, the EIA predicts continued development of tight oil, extracted from rock formations using hydraulic fracturing. That continuation, in combination with the ongoing development of offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico, will push domestic crude oil production to 6.7 million barrels per day in 2020, a level unseen since 1994.

Obama's rhetoric on expanding domestic fossil fuels could prove discomforting for environmentalists, who watched in dismay as he scrapped smog regulations and expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska last year. Indeed, his argument that expanding oil and gas production in America is a way to a way to create tens of thousands jobs would appear to be the very Republican talking point repeatedly leveraged against him in debates around the construction of Keystone XL.

The speech had environmental groups walking a cautiously supportive line.

“Home-grown sources of energy certainly are preferable to imports, especially from unstable regions of the world," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, following the address. "But as the president noted, feeding our addiction to fossil fuels is not the long-term solution; we need to embrace renewable sources of energy with even greater fervor as well as energy efficiency."

Obama, for his part, wasn't putting all his eggs in the renewable energy basket.

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years,” Obama continued, “and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.” In what was perhaps an attempt to soften the message for environmentalists, he added, “I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

Obama made only passing mention of global warming during the speech, lamenting that "the differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change."

But his failure to mention the Keystone XL pipeline, arguably the biggest energy-related issue he has faced thus far, constituted the speech's largest omission on the environmental front.

House Republicans have taken every opportunity to punish the president for rejecting the pipeline, and on Tuesday Speaker John Boehner's State of the Union guests included oil executives “hurt” by the Keystone decision.

“President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone project has caused a public outcry and provided another example of how his policies are making our economy worse,” Speaker Boehner said in a statement announcing his guests. “The president owes America’s workers an explanation, and I hope he will provide one tonight with these leaders and job creators on hand.

Earlier on Tuesday, environmental activists, including Keystone foe Bill McKibben and Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford, organized a marching band and about 500 protestors dressed as referees to march on the National Mall, throwing penalty flags at Congress for the amount of money they have received from the fossil fuel industry.

McKibben, for his part, was heartened by the speech.

"[Obama] spoke out strongly tonight, and we'll be making this case across the nation in the months to come," he said in a statement. "Congress takes small presents from oil companies and gives them huge ones back -- with our money. Time for it to stop."

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