What to watch for in the State of the Union

WASHINGTON — In 2009, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama used his first address to a joint session of Congress to deliver an ode to the power of renewable energy to “transform our economy, protect our security and save our planet from the ravages of climate change.”

But by 2012, with domestic natural gas production surging, Obama was embracing the potential of that cleaner-burning fossil fuel to “create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper.”

Energy analysts aren’t sure which Obama they will see on Tuesday night, as he delivers his penultimate State of the Union address: Will it be the president who took aim at oil and gas tax breaks in 2009 or the one who celebrated natural gas three years later?

Oil and gas industry leaders are hoping for the latter.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard suggested Obama would do well to highlight the economic good news around the domestic oil and gas boom, so far relatively unshaken by the plunge in crude prices.

“The transition from 20th century energy scarcity to 21st century energy abundance has created millions of jobs, generated billions in tax revenue and spurred a manufacturing renaissance,” Gerard said. “The American people understand that energy is inseparable from economic growth and job creation.”

API’s Gerard predicted that Obama’s State of the Union address “will include a mix of rhetoric claiming credit for energy achievements with a list of policy proposals that would actually undermine them.”

Here are some things energy wonks will be watching for Tuesday night.

Does Keystone XL get a mention?

Obama hasn’t been shy about casting Keystone XL as a project with big gains for Canadian oil producers with few tangible benefits for the United States. And White House officials have already issued a veto threat on legislation that would authorize the TransCanada Corp. project — a position that still leaves room for a potential permit later on.

But talking about the controversial proposed pipeline in a news conference and tackling it in a major address are very different things.

On Tuesday, Obama is expected to sidestep the details. But he still could make a veiled reference to the project, alluding the Senate’s ongoing debate of the Keystone XL bill while suggesting there are bigger, more bipartisan opportunities for consensus with Congress on energy policy.

Is the oil boom a bust?

In recent years, Obama’s praise for the domestic drilling boom has been cast in terms of its economic success.

As falling oil prices threaten to undermine that success story, and with just two years left in office to shape his energy and environmental legacy, Obama may choose not to dwell on the subject.

How much hot air is devoted to natural gas?

Last year, Obama describe natural gas as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy,” highlighting its cleaner-burning profile in a carbon-conscious world.

This year, any natural gas talk is likely to come with caveats. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning alternative, Obama may say, but only if it is extracted safely, with environmental protections in place to keep pollutants out of groundwater and the heat-trapping gas methane out of the atmosphere.

He could point to newly unveiled plans for cracking down on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Will he double down on climate change talk?

Last year, Obama was declarative: “Climate change is a fact,” he said, almost daring listening lawmakers to disagree.

At the time, Obama was laying the ground working for sweeping Environmental Protection Agency plans to crack down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

This year, what Obama says on climate change and the environment could offer clues about how boldly he will embrace these issues during his final two years in office.

Follow Houston Chronicle Washington report Jen Dlouhy below on Twitter for live updates from the State of the Union. And below that read Obama’s remarks from previous speeches on energy policy.


Energy in Obama’s State of the Union Speeches 2009-2014