Obama likely to target natural gas, climate change in State of the Union

WASHINGTON — From climate change to natural gas, energy issues have figured prominently in all of President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union addresses.

Expect the same on Tuesday night, when Obama goes before a joint session of Congress and a nationally televised audience to deliver his assessment of the United States’ health and pitch his policy priorities for the nation.

It’s still unclear just how far Obama will go this year, as oil and gas companies clamor to export more fossil fuels and environmentalists warn the president that his “all-of-the-above” energy policy undermines his work combating climate change.

Embracing shale gas

Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund, said he expects Obama to talk in broad terms about how surging domestic oil and gas production is benefiting American consumers.

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At the same time, Bledsoe predicted, “he will strongly reassert his concern over climate change,” devoting at least a few lines to the issue and coming Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.

That approach would continue a trajectory set in the 2012 State of the Union address, when Obama for the first time politically embraced the shale drilling boom and the natural gas it yields. In last year’s address, Obama vowed to use his executive powers to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming and work to combat climate change even if Congress doesn’t go along. He doubled down on that promise in June, when he unveiled a broad “climate action plan” full of policy moves that did not hinge on Congress.

Climate change action

White House officials say Obama will use Tuesday’s address to outline his commitment to “action,” including bypassing Congress when necessary to get things done. On climate change, that is already translating into EPA regulations on power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions — years after Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade plan for reining in the heat-trapping gases.

But he may need to do more to assuage environmentalists who have criticized the administration for continuing to abide — and even support — development of oil, gas and coal.

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“If I were writing the speech, I’d talk about the great things that have happened — that natural gas, in the short run, has allowed us to make massive reductions in carbon dioxide from 2005 levels,” said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “If I were reaching out to his constituency, I’d say this may be able to continue, but there’s also danger, that we can’t forget, with climate concerns, we need to make the long-term transition to non-fossil fuels.”

Climate critics

Some environmentalists are worried he won’t talk specifics.

Trip Van Noppen, the head of Earthjustice, which joined 17 other groups in a letter criticizing Obama’s all-of-the-above approach to energy earlier this month, said that “this is a leadership moment for the president.”

“We need to hear a reaffirmation of the climate commitment and a recognition that we can’t do all of the above if we are going to meet that commitment,” Van Noppen said in an interview.

“We have to make priorities,” he added. “We shouldn’t use our federal resources to undermine our climate goals.”

Avoiding controversy

Obama is unlikely to touch such controversial issues as the ban on exporting U.S. crude or the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, even though activists are pressing for specifics in the speech. Energy experts also expect that Obama will avoid more tough talk about oil and gas companies — such as his 2010, 2011 and 2012 vows to slash industry tax breaks.

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Marty Durbin, head of the industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said he hopes the fuel’s cleaner burning profile gets some time in the spotlight. Increased use of natural gas to generate electricity is one reason carbon dioxide emissions have declined in the U.S.

“What we certainly hope for is a continuation of the president’s recognition and support for use of natural gas, which is affordable and clean,” Durbin said in an interview. “From my standpoint, it’s very helpful for the president … to make that direct connection between the natural gas we’re producing here and the personal benefit at home — the consumer benefit — what it is doing to lower your prices.”

Energy superpower

Bledsoe said that if Obama doesn’t do a better job explaining how surging gas production is directly helping consumers, it could appear the U.S. is extracting more of the fossil fuel just to export it.

“There’s going to develop more pressure on the administration and natural gas advocates generally to demonstrate the economic value of the shale revolution to the average American consumer,” Bledsoe said.

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard said Obama has the chance to show that the U.S. is seizing its opportunity to become “the energy superpower of the free world.”

“It’s a unique opportunity for him to rise to the occasion, and to take us to true leadership here,” Gerard said in an interview. “This is a once in a lifetime chance. The world is watching. The question is will we rise to the opportunity or not.”

Energy and Environment in Obama’s State of the Union Addresses