President Obama Goes Backward on Energy

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Crossposted from TIME’s Ecocentric blog:

Last March, President Barack Obama gave a speech on energy security at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. In it, Obama offered what might be called a “grand compromise” on energy—in exchange for expanded offshore drilling, including in previously untouched areas like north Alaska and the Atlantic, he called for support of alternative power and the carbon cap bill that was still up for debate at the time in the Senate. It was a compromise that came in for criticism from both sides: environmentalists didn’t like the idea of offshore drilling in potentially sensitive areas, and conservatives weren’t happy about the alternative energy inducements and the talk about climate change.

In a less divided political atmosphere, Obama’s offer might have been the start of a realistic conversation on energy, acknowledging that we needed domestic sources of fossil fuels for now, while preparing the country for a cleaner, greener future. But the BP oil spill, less than a month later, effectively killed that compromise. Expanding offshore drilling became toxic for the White House, but without that carrot, cap-and-trade had no chance—if it ever had one at all—and the legislation died in the Senate without a vote.

Nearly a year later after that Andrews speech, Obama was back this morning at Georgetown University, ready to talk about energy security in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, unrest in the Middle East and triple digit oil prices. (In the magazine business, we call that finding a news peg.) But it’s a mark of how stagnant our energy policy has gotten that Obama was able to offer little more than he had a year ago. In fact, he could offer less. Last year there was at least a chance that the country could have both increased drilling, and a long-term carbon price. Now, for the most part, just the drilling remains, along with a suite of familiar policies: inducements to energy efficiency, second-generation (but still not commercial) biofuels, a portfolio for clean electricity sources and research and development. Obama pledged to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by one-third in a decade, but offered little new in the way to get there—even as the politics in Washington make any kind of action unlikely. As the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein blogged:

it’s not a very good plan, even if it may be very good politics. It says less about how we’ll solve our energy problems than how we’ve resigned ourselves to not solving them.

This is an energy plan that takes as its basis the need to increase domestic production of fossil fuels—not just oil, but natural gas as well, which Obama touted as an energy source with “enormous potential.” In fact, Obama spent time chastising the oil and gas industry for not drilling enough—citing an Interior Department study that showed the industry “holds tens of millions of acres of leases where it’s not producing a drop—sitting on supplies of American energy just waiting to be tapped.” (The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, fired back, arguing that slow permitting processes have held back drilling.) If domestic oil was a necessary evil, natural gas got a much warmer reception from the President, who noted that new shale deposits mean the U.S. may have as much as a century’s worth of natural gas reserves—some of which might even be used for transport. But the White House has to tread carefully here—while the potential for domestic shale gas really is huge, there are serious unresolved environmental risks that need to be solved. To that end, Obama promised that Energy Secretary Steven Chu—who “deserved his Nobel Prize,” as the President wryly put it—would work with other federal agencies, the industry, states and environmental experts to improve the safety of shale drilling. Which is great—except the federal government currently doesn’t have much authority to regulate shale gas drilling where it’s occurring; instead, that’s left up to the states. There’s legislation pending in Congress that would give Washington more power, but no word on whether the White House might support it—not that it would be likely to pass an industry-friendly Congress in any case.

It’s notable that perhaps the most ambitious part of the President’s speech—his pledge, repeated from the State of the Union, to call for a Clean Energy Standard (CES) that would ensure 80% of our electricity would come from clean sources by 2035—still includes fossil fuels. Natural gas is part of that “clean energy,” and while it’s certainly cleaner than coal or oil, it still emits a lot of carbon. Like so much else in the President’s energy plan, the CES is defining down—from a strategy based around capping greenhouse gas emissions and explicitly supporting renewable energy, to something that looks more like “anything but coal.” The political realities of the moment may make that shift inevitable—and if the President really can steer us away from coal while supporting more energy efficiency, he’ll have done better than any of his predecessors on this sticky issue. But it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we’re going backwards on energy and climate.

Give the President credit for this: he knows how to frame our energy challenge, and he understands why we’ve failed to solve it, or really even try. Unlike past White Houses, this one seems ready to keep talking about energy, even after America has stopped paying attention. “The President is having a serious and frank conversation about energy,” says Josh Freed, who directs the Clean Energy Program for the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “The President is really committed to this issue.”

Obama’s speech showed that much:

We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again.  The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity and security on a resource that will eventually run out.  Not anymore.  Not when the cost to our economy, our country, and our planet is so high.  Not when your generation needs us to get this right.

It is time to do what we can to secure our energy future.

But the truth is, we’re not getting much closer to getting this right. A new report by Pew Charitable Trusts found that the U.S. has fallen to third in the global cleantech race, behind China and Germany. Gas prices are rising, taking a bigger chunk out of people’s wallets at a time when so few can afford it—but there’s little we can do about it in the short-term. This isn’t solely the President’s fault, by any means—if there are responsible Republican partners to be found these days on energy or the environment, I haven’t seen them. But that’s politics. When it comes to energy we’re caught in a Groundhog’s Day loop, repeating ourselves without actually making a change—like Obama from one year’s speech to the next.

Update [3:29 PM]: Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of my favorite writers on energy, had a much more positive take on Obama’s speech that’s worth noting. For Levi, the emphasis Obama put on oil and gas was new—and important:

On the whole, though, the president should be applauded for embracing the importance of responsible oil and gas production within a comprehensive energy strategy, even though he still must translate that into real policy. It is now his opponents’ turn to show similar farsightedness by supporting serious efforts to cut oil demand.

I agree that domestic oil and especially gas production is going to be key to a meaningful energy policy. I’m just less confident than I was a year ago that Obama will be able to leverage fossil fuels for clean energy support.