Obama acceptance speech soft pedals climate goals, leaving environmentalists hoping for hardball on campaign trail

Hovering over his appealto voters at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, were clouds that this was no longer 2008, and that the political course to a greener economy that lay ahead never promised to be the Yellow Brick Road.

Indeed, Obama’s speech as a whole focused on urging Americans to support taking a “harder” path to a “better place.”

Channeling the spirit of Franklin D Roosevelt, who, like Obama, had to convince Americans in the midst of economic disaster to stick with him, Obama told the convention, “The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

“It will require common effort, shared responsibility and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one,” he said.

Obama still in the climate fight but offered few specifics

Though Obama vowed to fight global warming and secure American energy independence, he did not give many details on the climate goals a second Obama administration would pursue – and some of what he did suggest in the sphere of natural gas could arguably spell environmental trouble.

He did draw out some of the achievements he has made good on in the climate arena over the last three and a half years: his recent success at raising fuel standards that will require automobiles to go “twice as far on one gallon of gas within the next 10 years”; doubling the US’s use of renewable energy, and cutting oil imports to America by a million barrels a day.

This slash, he said was “more than any administration in recent history. And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.”

But he steered well clear of repeating his 2008 promises to elevate America’s voice in the international battle on climate change.

“He basically providing a philosophical catalogue of climate change – he does accept man-made climate change as a point of fact,” said Svend Søyland Bellona’s Senior Advisor for International Energy and Climate Issues.

“Unfortunately he is lacking in specific issues for climate change – climate policy and climate measures,” said Søyland.

“A glaring absence in last night’s speech was that he made no reference to US activities on an international scale when it comes to climate change – there was no mention of how the US can contribute to easing the international stalemate over reducing emissions,” he said.  

Indeed, international climate policy has not been the strong suit of Obama’s administration – or any US administration preceding his.

In commenting on further efforts to reduce global warming, Obama limited himself to saying:  “My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax.

“More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it,” he said.

Missed opportunities at international climate engagement

Obama has also skipped several opportunities during his administration to amplify the international climate change debate

His pass on attending the Rio + 20 Sustainable Development summit in June, and his drive-by appearance at the COP 15 UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 – which hoped ambitiously to commit UN nations to a legally binding emissions reduction document – are examples.

Yet, Obama’s ability to make effective commitments to international emissions reductions agreements is constrained my Congress – one that is remarkably more hostile to his climate mandate than it was in 2008.

It makes, then, perfect political sense that his speech focused on a check list of domestic energy issues that seem attainable – and rely in part on the fossil fuel sector.

He said “we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we’ll open more,” and promised “unlike my opponent” to repeal more than “$4 billion in corporate welfare“ or annual tax breaks to oil, gas and other fossil fuel producers over the next decade. That savings, Obama promised in February, would be pumped into climate friendly energy production.

More specifics documents on Obama’s plans to wean America off foreign oil dependence, distributed to reporters before the speech, promised cutting oil imports in half by 2020.

Shale gas could be major environmental sticking point

Other forms of domestic energy production offered by Obama was a plan “where we develop a hundred year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.”

Bellona’s Søyland said this was a direct reference to America’s increased exploitation of shale gas, which “as explained by American NGOs can have serious consequences for ground water contamination,” Søyland said.

Natural gas deposits in shale have since the early 2000s caused an energy revolution, with a potential to dramatically slash US energy imports should proper infrastructure be established, said Bellona advisor Keith Whirisky.

By pursuing the shale hydrocarbons, said Obama in his speech, “we can cut our oil imports in half by 2020 and support more than 600,000 new jobs in natural gas alone.”

The gold-rush mentality driving the low cost shale gas movement has, however, given many highly established US environmental groups pause.

“Nationally, and at the state and local levels, our public oversight of this industry has not begun to keep pace with
the rapid spread of gas and oil production from shale,” Bob Deans, associate director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told Bellona in an email interview.

“Correcting that must be an urgent undertaking for our national leadership,” Deans wrote.

Shale gas recovery, or hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is a technique involving injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract hydrocarbons.

Aside the dangers of fracking’s rupturing underground aquifers and contaminating water supplies, its toxic waste waters are stored in above ground reservoirs, which threaten to contaminate surrounding land.  Proponents of shale gas say that its abundance in the American landscape would create not only a major source of energy independence for the US, but a booming export trade.

The Obama administration has promoted shale gas, in part because of its belief that it releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels, but many American scientists have urged caution. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 issued a report concluding that shale gas emits larger amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than does conventional gas – but still far less than coal.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, with his close ties to Halliburton – which first developed shale gas – sought during the previous administration to exclude oversight of the energy source’s methane gas releases by the Clean Air Act.

But a July ruling by a federal appeals court establishing the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions scotched Cheney’s backroom deal.

“Bellona welcomes the new EPA regulations that will promote better oversight of chemical and overall environmental pollutants,” said

Areas of renewable success

In one of the few echoes of earlier times, Obama pledged an aggressive push for renewables like solar, wind and biofuels and clean coal.

“We’re offering a better path, a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal,” he told the conventions. “[W]here farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy […]”

Again, the specifics were in short supply, but the energy sources Obama cited are places were the US has made significant progress, environmentalists suggested.

“We are investing, as a nation, in wind, solar and other sources of renewable power” said the NRDC’s Deans in his earlier interview with Bellona.

Indeed, Bellona’s Søyland noted that wind energy has now reached price parity with coal power in certain regions of the US.

The real fight begins

In his38 minute acceptance speech, Obama referred to Romney by name only once. Some environmentalists had wished Obama would more directly address Romney’s sneering comments on the incumbents concerns over climate change, which Romney made during last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa Florida.

But as the candidates now face two grueling months of relentless campaigning before voters across the 50 states go to the vote on November 6, it would be hoped that Obama may be maintaining that rhetoric in reserve.

As recent polls suggest, at least 55 percent of American voters from both parties will be considering climate issues as they cast there ballots some 60 days from now, and they will be expecting hard science, not just lip service, to bear those positions out.