Obama's SOTU 2014: Loud on Oil and Gas Drilling, Mum on Keystone

The restrained address angered some prominent environmentalists and showed the limits of the president's 'go-it-alone' climate agenda.

President Barack Obama waits with members of Congress before delivering the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

If the 2014 State of the Union address—and its 20-odd sentences on climate, energy and the environment—seemed somehow brisker than the norm, perhaps it is because so much was left unsaid.

To nobody's surprise, President Obama said not a word about his impending decision on whether to grant a permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—a verdict that he has said depends largely on the climate change implications of shipping Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

But even when he spoke on other matters where the climate discussion is equally fraught and divisive, his remarks were restrained—even perfunctory.

Mostly, he spoke glowingly of success in what he has long described as an all-of-the-above energy strategy that embraces not only clean fuels and energy conservation, but also the increased production of oil and natural gas.

He dwelled on the drilling industries' significant contributions to employment and to the improving favorable balance of trade in fossil fuels. But he did not mention how increasingly, climate specialists say that most of the world's reserves of fossil fuels—be they gas, oil, coal or tar sands—ultimately need to be left in the ground. The goal is not just zero imports—as the head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been saying—it is zero emissions of carbon dioxide.

In the opening minutes of his speech, Obama invoked the image of a skilled mechanic working on fuel efficient cars—doing "his part to wean America off foreign oil." And he pledged to continue driving fuel efficiency upward, with mileage standards, incentives to switch from oil to gas, and research into more efficient manufacturing practices.

He was also quick to say that domestic drillers were doing their part, too: "More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that has happened for more than 20 years."

As for natural gas, "if extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon that causes climate change," Obama said approvingly. "My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities."

It was at about this juncture that Bill McKibben, leader of the climate advocacy group 350.org, seemed to have had enough. He tweeted: "Pretty soon we'll get to the 'all of the above' foreign policy part of the speech, where North Korea is the same as England."

In a statement after the speech, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club sounded a disappointed note, as well.

"If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an 'all of the above' energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy," he said. "We can't effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time."

But several other big groups in the environmentalist establishment, in a common statement, lined up together to "applaud" his commitment to confront power plant emissions. Among them were the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Center for American Progress, founded by John Podesta, who joined the top ranks of Obama's advisers just as the speech was being shaped.

Obama boasted that "over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on earth." But he did not note that last year carbon emissions began to go up again.

He made note of the rapid expansion of the solar industry, which continues for now to be sustained by generous tax credits. But he did not mention wind power, which also scored major gains, but which lost its tax break at the start of this year. Also not mentioned directly: nuclear power or biofuels, among other energy sectors. Nor was there any hint of whether the U.S. might begin to export crude oil in significant quantities.

When Obama mentioned the hallmark initiative of his climate action agenda, "to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air," he never used the word coal, which is at the heart of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal.

Nor did he mention that just a few hours earlier, the House Energy and Commerce Committee had voted to reject the EPA's proposed rule. Even though that confrontational bill is highly unlikely ever to become law, the vote was another sign of how intense is the Congressional opposition, mainly among Republicans, to Obama's ambitions to set climate policy by regulatory fiat.

The same committee, voting to reject a Democratic amendment, also refused to endorse even the idea that climate change brought on by human activities is endangering public health and the environment.

But Obama did not seize this opportunity, as he sometimes has before friendly audiences, to ridicule those who reject the scientific consensus as members of a latter-day Flat Earth Society.

Instead, he said briskly, "the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

Obama's biggest problem, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, is simply that he can't count on Congress to act. And for all his intent to go it alone, that comes with limits.

"It is very hard to do this without legislation in a way that matches the ambition that you need," she said of addressing the overall climate problem. "And I don't see that coming for a very long time."

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