WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama celebrated “booming” U.S. oil and gas production during his fifth formal State of the Union address Tuesday night, delivering a blow to environmentalists worried the president isn’t doing enough to combat climate change.
From his podium in the House of Representatives, Obama held steadfast to his pledge of an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that he claimed was bringing America “closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades.”
And he touted the potential of natural gas to help the U.S. pare its emissions of heat-trapping gases while making the transition to cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar.
“If extracted safely,” Obama said, natural gas is “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
‘A balanced approach’
For some, Obama’s approach may have been viewed as pragmatic — acknowledging the fossil fuels pouring out of West Texas and North Dakota while reminding Americans of renewable alternatives and power sources still on the horizon.
After all, oil and gas development have been the bright spots in an otherwise gloomy economy. Obama delivered a similar message — acknowledging the environmental and economic benefits of domestic natural gas development — in his 2012 State of the Union address.
Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, said Obama laid out a “balanced approach” to energy.
“He made clear that for America’s energy boom to be sustainable over the long term, we must take bold steps to both cut carbon pollution and better protect lands and waters that are too special to drill,” Lee-Ashley said.
But environmentalists widely criticized Obama’s remarks on energy and climate change as tepid — far from the bold commitments to combating climate change that they wanted.
Eighteen groups already bluntly told the president earlier this month that his “all-of-the-above” energy policy was undermining the fight against climate change. And in his State of the Union address, Obama effectively doubled down on the approach, just two weeks after the environmentalists’ rebuke.
“You can’t say you care about ending cancer and then go buy a carton of cigarettes,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. “And you can’t say you care about the climate and then go dig up more fossil fuels. We need real leadership from this president — not more lip service.”
Specifically, Obama said he would work to sustain energy production and job growth “while strengthening protection of our air, our water and our economies.”
Fighting climate change
Although he gave just a passing reference to new and looming standards on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, Obama highlighted plans to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, building on newly established benchmarks for cars that will “keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.”
He also said the U.S. needs to “act with more urgency” to further pare the carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change — even if that means “tough choices.”
“The debate is settled,” he said. “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
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David Turnbull, campaigns director at Oil Change International, said Obama had good words on the need for climate action, “but his continued trumpeting of all-of-the-above energy that includes more oil and gas drilling denies the reality of what’s needed to actually live up to his own words.”
Michael Brune, the executive director of Sierra Club said Obama “has taken significant steps forward by committing to hold dirty power plants accountable for their toxic carbon pollution and to protect our public lands.”
But, he added, ”the sum total of the president’s commitments fall short of what American families need to ensure a safe, healthy planet for our children. We can’t drill or frack our way out of this problem.”
Supporting natural gas
Obama did not address major energy policy controversies in the heartland and the nation’s capital, including debates about exporting U.S. oil and whether he should approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast.
The president also did not use the speech to advance any broad, new energy programs and climate change policies, having already unveiled a sweeping “climate action plan” last June.
Natural gas industry leaders were heartened by Obama’s support for the fossil fuel, which included a call on Congress to support “fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”
“It is clear from tonight’s speech that the president recognizes the role natural gas is playing in meeting our nation’s economic and environmental needs,” said Marty Durbin, CEO of America’s Natural Gas Alliance. “As the president mentioned, there is great promise for natural gas in our transportation sector as trucks, trains and cargo ships transition to this clean and abundant fuel.”
Oil industry response
But oil industry leaders and their allies on Capitol Hill complained that Obama was unfairly taking credit for a domestic energy revolution that has unfolded mostly on private lands.
“While the president frequently attempts to take credit for the current increase in domestic energy production, this is happening in spite of his policies, not because of them,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., head of the House Natural Resources Committee. “The only increase in American energy production is taking place on state and private lands.”
“America’s oil and natural gas producers are those truly ending our dependence on foreign oil, creating thousands of jobs, and bringing manufacturing back to our shores,” said Julia Bell, a spokeswoman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The reality is that the president’s policies have no hand in this.”
Oil industry leaders also were smarting at Obama’s renewed call to axe their long-held tax breaks, including the ability to write off intangible drilling costs and a domestic manufacturing deduction. Specifically, Obama said the U.S. should adopt “a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”
Obama made similar pleas to end oil industry tax deductions in his 2010, 2011 and 2012 State of the Union addresses; the plan also has been embedded in each annual budget request he has given Congress. But the proposals have never advanced on Capitol Hill.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute said Obama’s tax plan was misguided, because it would hurt “the oil and natural gas industry he needs to close the income gap and create jobs.”
“Punishing energy companies by raising taxes is not sound energy policy and could lead to less energy, less government revenue and fewer jobs,” Gerard said. “The oil and natural gas industry already contributes $85 million a day to the federal government — a larger contributor of government revenue than any other industry in the United States.”