Obama’s State of the Union tries to revive hope in environment, but reveals reality of industry and partisan pressure

Publish date: January 25, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

President Barack Obama set an ambitious new goal for America's energy future in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, saying 80 percent of electricity should come from clean energy sources by 2035.

With only 2 percent of the country’s energy being generated by renewable sources, the US needs to pick up immense momentum to meet that goal.

But Obama’s definition of clean energy is friendlier to industry than some environmentalists might like: He includes nuclear, natural gas and clean coal in the mix, along with wind and solar.

The president also renewed his call to boost the number of hybrid and battery-operated cars on US highways.

For the third year in a row, Obama waded into the heated debate over energy subsidies with a call for Congress to eliminate $4 billion a year in tax subsidies to oil and gas companies – a practice Obama called tantamount to “laundering” US taxpayers’ money.  Past efforts to derail these subsides, however, have gone poorly.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own,” Obama said with an ironic laugh to oil companies in his televised prime-time address. “So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

Obama urged that instead of oil, the money be shuffled toward biofuels and other programs that could help reach the benchmark of being the first country in the world to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

The energy initiatives, outlined in the first 10 minutes of his speech, were a brash departure from expectations following a bad week for White House environmental policy.

On Tuesday, two White House officials anonymously confirmed to the Associated Press that environment czar Carol Brower was resigning over the White House’s failure to pass energy and climate legislation to place a firm limit on pollution blamed for global warming.

Browner, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief under Bill Clinton, had campaigned for billions of dollars to be included in the economic stimulus bill for renewable energy. 

Shying away from hot button environmental terms

Unlike Obama’s last two big speeches to Congress, Obama did not use the words “global climate change.” He also made no explicit mention of the EPA or its controversial efforts to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

But he did note that his upcoming budget request would be heavy on clean energy technology spending “that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Just as important, the president spoke in broad terms about the government-wide review he ordered last week of all federal regulations, bolstering his overall message that the government and the nation “have to do better.”

“When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them,” Obama said. “But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe.”

Natural Resources Defence Council President Frances Beinecke applauded the speech.

“The president got it right,” Beineke told Politico. “Nothing’s more urgent than creating American jobs and protecting our health. The best way to do that is to invest in a clean energy future that makes our workers more competitive, our companies stronger, our country more secure and all of us healthier.”

The president placed a strong emphasis on renewing a vision for the future that he has carefully crafted during his tenure in office, but which has received a bruising at the hands of a Republican sweep during last year’s mid-tem congressional elections and a still sputtering economy.

The death of his climate bill, at least for this term, along with the failure of Cap and Trade legislation, also dampened hopes both nationally and globally for the ambitious environmental initiatives Obama laid out within the first six months of his presidency.  

Cap and Trade was doomed by a $100 million lobbying campaign mounted by big oil and gas to persuade “climate deniers” to vote it down. Yet Obama has remained unyielding in his dedication to sweeping up lobbying and spending issues in government, promising in stern terms to veto any bill crossing his desk that contains earmarks.

Reviving the original message

In an attempt to inspire new ideas and investments that will help create a future, Obama made reference to many success stories large or small. He quoted Robert Kennedy, who rightly put it that “the future is not a gift, it is an achievement”.

It is no surprise to the world that the United States has lacked in any progressive, long-term efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions on any scale, or that the country has not resolved its dependence on oil.

However, in a nation that produces nearly 20 million barrels of oil a day and imports even more, Obama seems to be a determined underdog striving to correct past addictions and promote a sustainable future.

Tensions to cooperation

Obama’s frustration with the friction between Republicans and Democrats that has caused set backs for in Washington was palpable as he spoke Tuesday night. The tension has been growing over the past years, but Obama was also at pains to recast that strain as an opportunity to call for much needed cooperation. He asked specifically for the government to cooperate and to remember that it was voted into office to do its constituents’ bidding, not its own.

Throughout his speech, Obama issued several rebukes to the government for the irresponsible and unsustainable spending habits. He reminded Congress of its responsibility to improve lives, reduce oil use, improve the economy, and cut pollution. With climate change already manifesting itself, an unpleasant future is already knocking on the door.

The problems with which renewable energy businesses have been struggling for decades have been the lack of funding for research and a lack of investors to create a competitive market, a critical component for business success.

By providing more opportunities to research technology along with market incentives, new alternatives to fuel can be generated. Obama said that, “To help our companies compete, we have to knock down barriers that stand in the way of their success”.

An argument often heard from opponents of promoting renewable energy is that it will cause thousands of Americans to lose their jobs. Yet it is necessary to take into account whose jobs are really at stake.

According to the Daniel J. Weiss from the Centre for American Progress, Americans spent an average of $228 million per day on imported oil in 2010. Americans can easily get adequate energy from alternative energy sources and they can also find jobs in a new energy industry full of multiple new technologies and jobs.

So who has the biggest losses from a declining dependency on oil and whose jobs are really the ones at stake? Powerful industries are adept at generating venomous falsehoods that reach uncertain ears causing ambivalence toward change. In his address, Obama vowed that many new jobs would be generated as a result to a shift in the economy.

President Obama further called on the government to focus its efforts on reforming what is important – investments in new clean energy technologies, education to give today’s youth a competitive advantage for the future, and economic innovations which are needed to help America play its role as a responsible global neighbor in the struggles against global warming.

Already, many other countries around the world are leading efforts to reduce their global carbon footprint. Iceland is already currently generating 100 percent of its electricity from geothermal resources while Norway and Sweden have used creative recycled energy solutions to heat buildings.

In order for America to “win the future,” as Obama suggested in his address, the government needs to rethink its priorities and reshape the economy so that it does not continue to dance to the tune of the oil industry.