02/13/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In State of the Union Speech Obama Straddles the Climate-Energy Fence

Can we lower carbon emissions and also push more and more oil and gas production?

The environmental community got a shot in the arm following the 2012 election. After it had languished as a non-issue throughout the presidential campaign, Obama gave a shout-out to climate change in his victory speech on election night and two months later it was a focal point of his inaugural address.
Obama State of the Union address Obama's State of the Union address, February 2013 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The question on many minds following that speech was: Would climate change rank high enough as an issue to appear in his State of the Union address? And if so, would its inclusion indicate a strong intent on the part of the president to act quickly? Or would it be a mere mention to placate those worried about the planet's health, with no assurance that anything substantive would happen?

Last night we seemed to get our answer. Obama devoted almost a tenth of his speech to climate and energy.

Laying Down the Climate Gauntlet

About 18 minutes into the speech, following thunderous approval of the need to invest "in science and innovation" -- and making the case specifically for our energy investments -- Obama cogently laid out the reasons for acting on climate. (Or see here.) "For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change."

He went on to cite the mounting evidence:

But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods -- all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

He encouraged legislators to do their job: "I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan market-based solution to climate change like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago."

Then he laid down the gauntlet:

But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct -- I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

But Then ... a Backtrack?

On the heels of his climate proclamation, Obama pivoted from the need to pursue clean-energy solutions like wind and solar to his commitment to continuing the pursuit of natural gas, and clearing the hurdles and speeding the development of new sources of oil and gas:

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That's got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.

And here it was again, the energy theme Obama has come to embrace, his all-of-the-above policy. (See here and here.) In fact this policy was prominently featured earlier in his address too: "Today no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy."

And he pointed out with pride that:  "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years."

Now, I know that growing natural gas supplies can supplant coal in electricity generation and thereby slow greenhouse gas emissions (provided there is not significant leakage of natural gas -- an unresolved question). But natural gas, like oil, is a hydrocarbon and so burning it leads to carbon dioxide emissions, the very emissions we must cut to "combat climate change."

So the question arises: Does it make sense to work to reduce carbon emissions on the one hand and facilitate new oil and gas production on the other?

Oil and Gas Revenues to Fuel Renewable Energy Technologies

Obama seemed to answer that question in his address by proposing we use "some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good." It's an intriguing way to get to a carbon-free economy. Just like wasps who lay their eggs inside a host prey so the eggs can hatch and feed off their host before killing it, the Energy Security Trust would siphon dollars from the oil and gas industry until renewables were strong enough to make oil and gas irrelevant.

Can it work? When I tweeted that question last night, Surfrider's Chad Nelsen responded yes, kind of, with a caveat: "only if the acceleration of renewables (& electricity-based transportation) out paces extraction." Over at Grist David Roberts pointed out that Obama's proposal to use oil and gas revenue to fund an Energy Security Trust is essentially a tax and thus unlikely to receive congressional approval.

The bottom line is, Obama's in charge and so we'll have to see how this plays itself out. But I am a bit uncomfortable. It feels to me as if the president is trying to play good guy with the environmental community and the oil and gas industries at the same time. At the very least I would like to see him explain how he reconciles the objectives of lower emissions and more oil and gas production, and how his all-of-the-above energy strategy will allow us to meet our climate objectives.

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok and National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge blog | Find us on Facebook