Obama’s State of the Union: A Step Forward for Energy Policy?

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Published on January 26th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Before coming to The Nature Conservancy, I worked in local and then state government for many years, almost always directly for elected officials. The circumstances were often difficult. There were fiscal problems, unfavorable politics, corruption, and unexpected events. What separated success from failure was the ability of a politician to find a way to somehow move forward despite adversity.

This could hardly have been a more adverse year for federal climate and energy legislation. Both climate and energy bills died in the Senate. Talking about climate change became a political liability. It looked like it might all be put on hold for the next several years.

And yet, in his State of the Union address last night, President Obama used the context of economic growth, jobs and competitiveness to recast energy policy by setting some ambitious goals:

  • 80 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2035, and
  • a million electric cars on the road by 2015.

Achieving these goals would not only stimulate our economy and increase energy security, it would also significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions and, thus, reduce the rate of global climate change. So the president has identified ways of moving forward.

Supplementary information provided by the White House says the president would accomplish his goals by investments in research and development of new energy and battery technology and by creating more certain markets for alternative energy (although how that is to be achieved is not clear). The Nature Conservancy’s analysis suggests that to reach the 80 percent level by 2035 would require us to replace about 60 percent of current energy-generating capacity with a combination of renewable sources, new nuclear and efficient gas.

Old and inefficient coal-fired generation would be the first to be retired. Gas may be seen as transitional fuel as we develop new technologies such as deep geothermal generation with even lower carbon emissions. Energy efficiency should also be given more importance in such an overall approach.

These strategies, if successful, could be one of a number of efforts that would help to achieve the kind of long-term reductions in carbon emissions that are needed to stabilize the Earth’s rapidly changing climate. So it has multiple benefits: jobs, cleaner air, energy security and reducing the rate of climate change. But the goal will require aggressive action by the public and private sectors.

The goal of a million electric cars by 2015 is similarly ambitious and goes hand in hand with the objectives for clean energy. Generating sources must be made cleaner to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions from electric cars.

The Nature Conservancy supports all this with the proviso that there is adequate protection for the environment— including wildlife habitat—in the deployment of emissions-reducing energy technologies. Among other things, this means using the mitigation protocol to guide siting of energy facilities on public land, where possible, for energy siting and design on private lands—this strategy can help ensure that critical wildlife habitat is avoided and that potential harm to other natural areas is minimized or offset. We have not yet taken a position on nuclear power as a component of a clean-energy standard, but siting issues, particularly the impacts of plant-cooling technologies, are important here, too.

The president also defended continuing regulatory authority in the federal government, although he talked about streamlining laws and making enforcement efficient and logical. The Nature Conservancy believes that America’s laws governing clean water, clean air and toxics control have been of great benefit to people and wildlife and, while regulatory processes can be improved, the basic integrity of these statutes should be defended.

So, all in all, in difficult times, the president’s State of the Union speech is a step forward for energy policy and its attendant benefits. We are in a race with time for energy security, a sustainable economy and for reducing the impacts of carbon pollution. And forward is good.

Photo by Jim Richardson. Evening photograph of the Spearville Wind Farm just north of the town of Spearville, in Ford County, Kansas.

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Comments: Obama’s State of the Union: A Step Forward for Energy Policy?

  •  Comment from CM

    The Obama administration speaks of clean-burning natural gas and wanting 1 million electric cars by 2015. Amazing…Amazingly ridiculous to think that this means anything.

    They want to eliminate oil use in transportation. OK. Let’s look at that. If we HAD natural gas cars we would need the natural gas and the infrastructure to fuel these vehicles at the local gas station. Who will have to spend the money to provide the needed infrastructure that will cost billions? The oil companies. The same oil companies that the Democratics have villanized due to the Deepwater Horizon accident, refuse to issue drilling permits to (for natural gas, at that) and vowed to eliminate tax breaks for. So…the rigs and jobs are going overseas as I write. A large portion of oilfield workers on the Gulf coast are now on unemployment. Oh, by the way, this errodes our ability to produce natural gas making the goal further out of reach. And, did you hear where the dems want to CREATE jobs? Their actions are counter to what they are saying that they want to do.

    One million electric cars is–I guess– about a quarter of our yearly auto production in this country. That isn’t much. In fact, it is just retoric. Also, have you seen the price of these electric cars? I can’t afford a $40,000.00 car and, in all liklehood, neither can you.

    These Democratic “make me feel good” offerings are not realistic.

    First, Detroit is incapable of productig affordable electric cars because of labor union and legacy costs.
    Second, a million expensive electric cars for the wealthy will make the rich yuppies feel “green” but won’t do much for the rest of us or the environment.
    Third, the Oil Companies must be given tax breaks in order to provide incentive for them to invest in the natural gas infrastructure. Otherwise, they will make their money selling you $5.00 per gallon gasoline refined from more foreign oil.
    Fourth, the oil companies must be allowed to drill. Yes. Drill baby drill. It will be the only buffer to stave-off $5.00 per gallon gasoline until the natural gas solution is implemented. I say stave-off becasue, contrary to what most people believe, the oil companies that operate in the US do not and can not control the price of oil. The price of oil is controlled by large national oil companies. Given this, the US operating companies are glad to drill overseas (exporting jobs) haul it over here, refine it and sell it to you at the going rate.
    Fifth, with the current atmosphere in Washington wanting to beat on the oil companies the oil companies are not very likely to want to “play ball” with all of this Democratic muttering further rendering Obama and the Democrats dysfunctional.
    Lastly, we need an energy policy.

    The energy policy will have to tackle all these issues–and a whole lot more.

    Gasoline will be $4.00 a gallon by the end of summer this year and heading to $5.00 per gallon. You will have to pay. And, at the Democratic pace of things, you will be paying for a long, long time.

  •  Comment from Jason

    1. Detroit automakers are A. not the only, and not the biggest, car producers who can make electric cards, and B. not saddled by labor costs after 2008. Indeed, the hybrid cars being made by Chevy and Ford are doing quite well.

    2. Agreed. Subsidies for electric cars (and make sure this only goes hand-in-hand with phasing out dirty coal power plants, which would be dirtier than gasoline cars) are needed to help middle class Americans buy them.

    3. Tax incentives? They have plenty of money to invest in natural gas “infrastructure” (and by that, I mean drilling and exploration. I don’t buy this direct natural-gas-powered cars you’re dreaming of). Taxes on oil drilling and oil in general will make natural gas and electric cars more appealing to the consumer, and thus shift demand from oil products. And this would bring much needed revenue for research and development.

    4. Yes, oil companies will probably need to drill more oil in the near future…but the fraction of a cent difference oil drilling off pristine coastlines will have does not warrant the cost and inherent risk in oil development. The fact is, the US doesn’t have much oil left to drill, and the oil that it does have is locked in environmentally-sensitive areas. And because oil is, like you said, an internationally-traded commodity whose price is set by worldwide demand and supply, the few extra drops obtained from these areas will likely not impact oil prices in any considerable way. A simple cost/benefit analysis proves this.

    5. Oil companies not wanting to play ball? As if we need, or should need, their approval for whatever is needed? Since when are the American people subject to the whims of multi-national corporations?

    Government policy should be made on behalf of the WELFARE OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, NOT THE PROFITS OF OIL COMPANIES.

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