Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the road ahead as laid out by President Obama in his recent State of the Union?
— Marilyn Pike, Bethesda, MD
The economy dominated President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but his discussion about energy and the environment took up almost seven minutes—or nine percent—of the hour-plus address. And while much of what Mr. Obama said was comforting to environmentalists, his statements about expanding natural gas production—albeit “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk”—and opening up more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources did not sit well.
Even so, natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, and reducing our reliance on foreign oil is a good thing overall. “Right now American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “…last year we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.”
Michelle Wilson Berger of the National Audubon Society points out that when George W. Bush told us in his 2006 State of the Union that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil, some 60 percent was coming from foreign sources. “Now it’s just less than half,” Berger says, adding: “The trend is going to continue in that positive direction and within a couple decades, it’s going to be even less, say something like 36 percent.”
Nonetheless, environmental advocates were hoping for less bullish talk from Obama on expanding fossil fuel development of any kind, given the dire climate predictions we are facing. But Obama isn’t giving up his commitment to renewables, despite the recent bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra after it had received upwards of $500 million in loan guarantees. “Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail,” stated Obama in the speech. “But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.”
Obama also called on Congress to pass a new standard aimed at boosting wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables, and to extend related tax credits to help diversify and green the country’s energy mix, adding that he wants to end tax subsidies for oil companies. In underscoring that Americans don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment, he cited the case of the revival of the American auto industry thanks in part to automakers’ willingness to innovate to meet aggressive fuel economy standards.
Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund considers Obama’s State of the Union “a strong defense of the importance of clean energy to America’s long-term economic prosperity.”
Speeches aside, 2011 wasn’t a bad year for Obama on the environment. He proposed raising the average fuel efficiency standard for new cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025—this alone, says Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke, “will save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump and cut our annual oil use by more than the amount we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.” Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project—which would have transported dirty Alberta tar sands oil across U.S. soil—was another triumph, as were establishing the first national standards to limit mercury and other air toxins from power plants, proposing a visionary national oceans policy, protecting the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, and supporting clean energy investments at record levels.
CONTACTS: wWhite House State of the Union 2012.