3 Environmental Reforms Obama Should Call for Tonight

01/25/2011 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Erich Pica President, Friends of the Earth and FOE Action

The state of the union is questionable. There is oil in our oceans. There are toxins in our air. The country is in debt. Millions of people are unemployed. And politics in Washington threaten to keep us from doing anything of consequence.

In his State of the Union address last year, President Obama failed to support strong policies to help the country avoid ecological disaster. Tonight, he cannot afford to make the same mistake. The government must play a substantial role in protecting ecosystems and the people who depend on them - strong regulations are crucial, and the President must make this point. By setting out three simple steps, the President can chart a new course forward into an environmentally sound and economically competitive 21st century. We urge President Obama to rededicate his administration to protecting our planet and the people who live on it, while making the United States a global leader in energy innovation.

1. Renew his call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies

When socially beneficial industries need help getting off the ground, the federal government can use tax incentives and special subsidies to encourage investment. But the fossil fuel industry is established, is raking in record profits, and is harming the environment, so there's no reason for taxpayers to continue to subsidize coal and oil companies - foreign and domestic - to the tune of billions of dollars a year. These giveaways come in many forms: loan guarantees, tax loopholes, undervalued or unenforced royalty fees for drilling on public land, liability coverage and even direct handouts. Such Polluter Perks need to end.

Many of the new members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, were elected promising to cut deficit spending and eliminate the national debt. Eliminating dirty fuel subsidies and other environmentally harmful spending could cut $200 billion from the budget. The American people need this money more than the oil companies do; in the first quarter of 2010, the quarter immediately before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP made $61 million per day in profits, and was only the third highest-earning oil company during that time. Surely those profits are high enough to be self-sustaining without being propped up by taxpayers.

Many fossil fuel subsidies were designed at the turn of the 20th century to help an emerging industry develop. Now, taxpayer money works to further entrench a dangerous behemoth, rewarding dirty energy producers for destroying the natural environment. The newly emerging clean energy industry today needs the support that oil received a century ago (and unfortunately continues to receive). Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies will remove a roadblock preventing the emergence of clean, renewable energy sources; rededicating the money to support renewables will foster innovation that could have an incredibly positive impact on the nation's energy future, and its economy.

President Obama proposed eliminating fossil fuel subsidies at the G20 conference in 2009 but has made little progress since. Tonight's speech is a perfect opportunity for the President to reiterate that pledge and propose the complete elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. He can use the State of the Union address to explain how the subsidies hurt the economy and how their elimination will spur growth in renewable energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the budget deficit.

2. Stand up for the Clean Air Act and effective regulations

The Clean Air Act has been an important force protecting Americans since it was enacted nearly a half century ago. The Clean Air Act has reduced air pollution across the country, cutting asthma and lung disease rates and saving countless lives. In 2007, the Supreme Court confirmedobligated that the EPA is obligated to use the Clean Air Act to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Since President Obama took office, his administration has used this law to take modest steps to increase fuel standards for cars and ensure that new factories and power plants do not belch toxic gases into the atmosphere.

However, even these initial steps are under fire from the global warming deniers in Congress. A background paper prepared for the House Environment and Commerce Committee [PDF] claims that "the [EPA] has been regulating 'too much too fast.'" The new rules - which apply only to new plants and those being upgraded and will barely reduce emissions by five percent according to some sources - are closer to "too little too late" than to what the Republicans claim. These protections cannot wait; only a significant cut in emissions can prevent catastrophic damage to the planet and the EPA must use every tool in its power to stop irreparable damage.

Unfortunately, the assault on the Clean Air Act fits into a broader pattern. Wealthy corporate interests have been working to turn "regulation" into a dirty word, even though regulations are essential to the strength of our economy and the well being of the public. This isn't an abstract debate. We've seen in the past what happens without sufficient regulation: kids die when they eat contaminated food, rivers catch on fire, giant oil spills take human life and destroy ecosystems, corporations discriminate against and mistreat their employees, and financial institutions engage in behavior so risky that it crashes the economy. The truth is that in order for markets and society to function, we need regulations.

Tonight, President Obama must defend regulations in general and stand up for the Clean Air Act in particular. After the speech, he should redouble his push to use his regulatory authority to protect the environment.

3. Support clean energy, but not the misleadingly named "Clean Electricity Standard"

Congress cannot afford to avoid making real change; it cannot continue to "greenwash" bad ideas. Simply calling coal, offshore oil, biofuels and nuclear power "clean," like President Obama did in his State of the Union last year does not eliminate their devastating environmental impacts. The American Power Act introduced in the Senate last session would also have avoided the real issue by propping up the same failed technologies into the next several decades. The energy companies that supported the bill were disappointed to see it stay in committee at the end of the session.

Natural, renewable power sources -- including wind, solar, and geothermal -- are legitimately clean alternatives, producing virtually no harmful byproducts. Moreover, technology to harness energy from these sources exists and is safe. As the country creates more clean, renewable energy, thousands of high-paying jobs will be created in fields from engineering to manufacturing. Effective investments and regulations will help expand the clean energy industry, while strengthening our nation's economy.

However, the President must not support a dangerous bait-and-switch: the misleadingly named "Clean Electricity Standard," which includes many energy sources that are not clean, such as dangerous nuclear, dirty coal, and unsustainable biomass. If the President pretends that these sources are clean and announces his support for the Clean Electricity Standard, he will be playing politics, not supporting truly clean energy.

We have seen before what our country can do when we work together toward a common goal. This month, we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President Kennedy, a man who dared a nation to go to the moon. President Obama faces a similar moment closer to home. Now is not the time to aim low, or to engage in petty politics designed to keep corporate lobbyists happy. Bold policies that truly promote clean energy are needed. If President Obama issues this challenge, the nation will listen.