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Obama's State of the Union: Mum on Climate, Loud on a Clean Economy Future

Obama adopted a more centrist tone during his State of the Union, avoiding any mention of climate change but embracing the promise of clean technology

Jan 26, 2011

WASHINGTON—President Obama's commitment to lessening the nation's carbon footprint hasn't likely changed. But the manner in which he's pursuing that ideal has definitely shifted.

That became abundantly clear when he avoided any mention of climate change or heat-trapping gases but embraced the promise of clean technology during his Tuesday night State of the Union address. As Democratic and Republican legislators parted with the tradition of separate seating and listened side-by-side during the speech, Obama adopted a more centrist tone now that the GOP is wielding far more power in the 112th Congress.

All of that nuance wasn't lost on several dozen clean technology innovators who gathered at a downtown Washington watering hole to listen to Obama’s words on a television screen so gigantic that the president appeared life-sized.

They didn't erupt into applause as often as attendees in the House of Representatives chamber — at least 75 such interruptions occurred there — but they did clap, hoot and stomp at the 15-minute mark of the 62-minute speech when Obama called for ditching billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded oil subsidies and steering the United States toward producing 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy by 2035. He also repeated a goal of putting a million electric vehicles on the roadways by 2015.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own," Obama said about the oil industry. "So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."

Labeling it "our generation’s Sputnik moment," the president urged reinvention of energy policy to create jobs and establish a market for clean energy sources. Earlier on, Obama told the audience that the "future is ours to own" if we out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.

Those messages resonated with Tim Greeff, policy director for the nationwide Clean Economy Network. The educational and advocacy organization was formed in March 2009 to shape a new economy based on clean technology and innovation. The nonprofit had organized a two-day summit in the nation's capital that concluded with a Tuesday evening gathering at Buffalo Billiards to hear how the president would broach clean energy.

Even though Greeff was shooting pool with a colleague during most of Obama's speech, he didn't seem to miss one word.

"The subsidy part is pretty big," Greeff told Solve Climate News. "Here's the paradigm we need to move to: Energy has never cost the taxpayers what it costs to provide and removing subsidies will do that. So let's put it all on the table and decide what the right option is. Not only can clean tech compete but we can win because subsidies are suppressing market values."

"We need to diversify," he continued. "What the president laid out is ambitious but it’s achievable — if we set the markets to work they way they should."

Greeff also pointed out that while energy prices for traditional fuels have been rising for two decades, prices for solar, wind and other renewables are dropping.

China is charging ahead with its clean technology sector, he stressed, by creating demand instead of letting the market tell it how to proceed. That is giving the Chinese a huge edge.

"In this country we always stare at our feet when we walk down the energy path," he said. "We need to be looking five steps ahead."

Bipartisan Tent

He described the Clean Economy Network as a big bipartisan tent for infant industries intent on taking a sector to scale. Some are environmentalists — and others aren't — but what they have in common is a desire to succeed and make money.

As Obama braces for what could be a bruising election battle in 2012, it's not so surprising that he has altered the tenor of his talk recently. Instead of "greenspeak," he's seeking middle ground with still inspirational but more neutral and somewhat blander language as he guides the national conversation on the economy, job creation, fiscal discipline and the struggle of everyday Americans.

The change has been starkly evident in shifts occurring at the White House during the last several weeks. For one, Obama hired politician and businessman William Daley — former commerce secretary and brother of the outgoing Chicago mayor — as his chief of staff. Also, he named another high-profile businessman, Jeffrey Immelt, to replace Paul Volcker as the chairman of his outside panel of economic advisers. Immelt is chairman and chief executive officer at General Electric. As well, Obama has directed federal agencies to review regulations that potentially impede job growth.

In addition, environmentalists have been in speculation overdrive since late Monday night when former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner announced that she would soon be leaving her White House position as energy and environmental policy adviser. Many fear the loss of such a savvy negotiator and navigator indicates the president is backing off a commitment to curbing greenhouse gas emissions just when the EPA is under ferocious fire from Congress for attempting to do so.

Tina Beattie, who serves as chairman of the board for Republicans for Environmental Protection, didn't have any insights about Browner but she is still fuming about how Republicans fumbled their chance to deploy a cap-and-trade system to mitigate carbon dioxide.

"How sad that Obama had to walk away from a market-based solution because we allowed pundits to demonize the verbiage," said Beattie, who attended the Clean Economy Network summit gathering because she’s in Washington this month to educate Republican congressional newcomers about environmental issues. "Shame on the Republicans for not understanding it and championing it."

Obama should have been able to use this year's State of the Union address to tout the success of a cap-and-trade bill, she said, especially because businesses and the energy sector are begging for carbon guidelines.

By rejecting what the tea party movement and others derided as "cap and tax," Beattie said, "we say we're protecting American businesses but we're not. The rest of the global community is addressing the carbon issue but we’re being stubborn. The energy security issue isn’t even being debated."

She criticized Obama and federal legislators for not seizing on the enormous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a chance to educate their constituents about the need to expand an energy portfolio that is currently far too limited.

"China is pouring dollars into new technology and we're kibitzing about verbiage," Beattie said. "It’s tragic that we let that happen in America."

Though Obama did not mention the BP disaster during his speech, he did highlight how stimulus dollars boosted clean technology innovation.

That came when he gave a shout-out to Michigan brothers Gary and Robert Allen. The entrepreneurs used about $500,000 from the Recovery Act to reinvent their roofing products business as a company that manufacturers solar shingles.

The Allens were seated as guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box along with another innovator, Brandon Ford.

He's a student at West Philadelphia High School Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. The 18-year-old was part of the West Philly Hybrid X team that advanced to the elimination round in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize contest that attracted 100-plus teams from around the world. The high-schoolers entered two fuel-efficient vehicles.

Attorney Joseph Geldhof, who advocates on behalf of renewable energy, traveled all the way from Alaska to Washington for the Clean Economy Network summit. And he praised what he heard from the president.

Obama's emphasis on innovation, jobs, national security and ending dependence on foreign oil, he said, will resonate with Alaska politicians such as Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who grasp the significance of energy independence.

Though Obama didn't spell out the details of how to achieve such a lofty clean technology goal by 2035, Geldhof said what he heard was a plea for what makes Americans unique—their ability to innovate.

That means alternative energy landscape will differ by geographical region, he said. For instance, South Carolina might concentrate on nuclear power, while Alaska will gravitate toward wind, geothermal and tidal power.

"I think he knocked it out of the park. He hit a home run," said Geldhof, who pointed out that he's a Republican. "This speech tells me he's accountable, that he's learned a lot over the last two years and that he’s going to work to get the job done."

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