President Obama’s State of the Union address was a mixed bag for environmentalists.
Official White House photo by Pete Souza
There were some expected disappointments, most obviously the president’s failure to mention climate change (perhaps the greatest threat facing humanity) except in passing. There were also some pleasant surprises, like the president’s defense of the EPA’s move to update mercury pollution rules, his commitment to use public lands and military installations to boost renewable energy production, his support for increasing energy efficiency as way of saving the economy money, and his call to slash fossil fuel subsidies and instead “double down” on clean energy tax credits.
The president’s commitment to put clean energy at the center of his broader platform to create “an economy built to last” is obviously welcomed. He seems serious about this, and, as his first campaign ad illustrated, the Obama 2012 team thinks this is a political winner.
But I’m worried about the White House’s definition of “clean energy.” It seems to think that natural gas would fit the bill. As the president put it: “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”
Yes, there was a nod to controversy over hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) technologies. The president said he would require “all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.” He promised that “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” And the president did make a distinction, of sorts, between natural gas and renewables. (The line, “What’s true for natural gas is true for clean energy” sets up a kind of contrast.)
But the takeaway is clear: The Obama Administration and, by extension, a good chunk of the Democratic Party establishment, view natural gas as the kinder, gentler fossil fuel. This is a hydrocarbon they can get behind. It’s not old-fashioned, like coal. It’s not disgusting and sticky and prone to spill, like oil. Why, it’s natural!
There are all sorts of reasons why that thinking is wrong and why we should remain skeptical about the promise of shale gas. For starters, the 100-year figure is probably off; just yesterday the Department of Energy revised downward its estimates for the gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale. As Brad Johnson at Climate Progress points out, burning all that gas would release about 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Also, the industry still has problems figuring out how to dispose of all the toxic water that comes out of the well during the process. And in some areas of the country (especially Texas and Oklahoma, suffering from mega droughts) there’s not going to be enough water to both extract gas and grow crops for food.
Here’s the best argument against investing more of our financial and social capital into natural gas: Just like all fossil fuels, it will eventually run out. One hundred years might sound like a long time, but it’s nothing compared to how long we can power the planet from solar energy — forever.
Forever: That’s an economy built to last. A mere century is a blueprint for planned obsolescence.
Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s earnest hopes, facts have little relation to politics. The desire to be able to demonstrate some affinity for some fossil fuel is too attractive for a lot of Democrats to turn away from.
That’s bad news for the long list of environmental organizations who are committed to halting the natural gas rush or, at the very least, increasing oversight of the practice. For greens, I think it’s likely that the fight over natural gas could be the Keystone XL-type political battle of 2012. And 2013. And, I hate to say it, 2014 and on.
You can find it plenty of other places, but here’s the president’s remarks on energy:
“Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy. Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right - eight years. Not only that - last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.
“But with only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy - a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.
“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.
“The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock - reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.
“What’s true for natural gas is true for clean energy. In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.
“When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance. But he found work at Energetx, a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts. Today, it’s hiring workers like Bryan, who said, ‘I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.’
“Our experience with shale gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.
“We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives. The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will. I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history - with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.
“Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s another proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”