His State of the Union address was a powerful reminder of how Barack Obama looks and sounds, how he can inspire and enlist, when he embraces a problem with the presidential passion it requires.
Unfortunately, there was room for only one such problem on Tuesday.
Beyond any doubt, gun violence is a serial tragedy in American life. It is also a political problem on which hardly anyone imagines this president can maneuver Congress into real solutions.
Our coal- and oil-based energy systems have been damaging public health more widely, though more quietly, for generations. Now the catastrophic scenarios associated with global warming and its climate-twisting require bold preventive measures lest we, as Obama told the nation on Jan. 21, “betray our children and future generations.”
And yet on Tuesday night, three full weeks after that second-inaugural surprise, the President hung little flesh on a bare-bones agenda of pledging to ask Congress, again, to get serious about greenhouse gas reductions, then doing some general administrative stuff when Congress, again, declines.
A couple of new details: He wants to divert a portion of oil and gas royalties to investments in alternative-fuel vehicles, and offer federal funds to state-level programs that advance energy-efficient building techniques. Both are good ideas. Both would seem to need congressional assent.
As I compared the prepared text of the president’s speech with the transcript (as prepared by ABC News) I saw just one real difference in the passage on climate and energy.
After promising that “my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits,” Obama underscored the point by extemporizing: “That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.”
Nothing against balance here, you understand. But the production side of the scales is not where the weight of this administration’s hand is needed most just now.
No new controls on old coal plants
Wednesday brought much more reporting and analysis on the speech, from which these items stood out:
After a White House press briefing in the morning, Philip Bump wrote at Grist.org that having the Environmental Protection Agency order CO2 reductions at the nation’s existing fleet of coal-fired power plants — perhaps the president’s best opportunity for achieving large, short-term cuts — is not something the White House anticipates doing soon, if at all. He quotes Heather Zichal, who advises the president on energy and climate:
“The president demonstrated last night that his preference, his stated goal, is that he would welcome an opportunity to work with Congress on a bipartisan, market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Whether or not that’s a reality certainly remains a question.”
Really? To whom? And if not firmer EPA regulation of coal emissions, then what?
“We’re not in a position to say, ‘These are the 15 things we’re going to do.’ But I think the point here is that we have demonstrated an ability to really use our existing authority — permitting-wise, what we can do through the budget — to make progress.”
Oil money for alternative fuels
On the “Energy Security Trust” mentioned by the president, and its endorsement by “a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals,” the New York Times‘ Matt Wald explained that the coalition was known as SAFE (for Secure America’s Energy Future) and suggested last December that half a billion bucks in oil and gas royalties ─ about 10 percent of the stream ─ could be diverted to develop alternative fuels and engines. But $200 million would be OK, too, the group said.
Some details are laid out in a White House document prepared in connection with the speech, and in a late-afternoon update, Wald appended a few more facts (emphasis mine):
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the administration would ask Congress to direct $200 million a year to the fund for 10 years. That would be added to an existing research and development program at the Energy Department; in recent years the administration has been asking for $300 million for that program. While the money would be raised from oil and gas revenues and be spent to reduce oil use, the official said, some of it would be spent to increase natural gas use in vehicles.
Cleaner-burning natural gas
Over at the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Levi reported that Obama is proposing, or refashioning an earlier proposal, “to award a $25 million prize to the first developer to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) on a natural gas combined cycle power plant” — which Levi considers a great idea:
The most profitable way to do CCS on a gas-fired power plant is to inject the carbon dioxide that’s captured in order to enhance production of oil. If the administration can find ways to jump-start this effort, the result would be development and cost-reductions of a critical low-carbon technology together with activity that could, as the Natural Resource Defense Council has pointed out approvingly, simultaneously give a big boost to oil production.
My only quibble with the proposal is that it’s too small — I’m not sure the $25 million will do the trick. Why not propose that a slice of the roughly $10 billion (over the next decade) that’s currently slated to go to the percentage depletion tax credit currently enjoyed by oil producers be redirected to support projects that combine oil, gas, and CCS? It would be a win for zero-carbon energy and for many oil and gas producers at the same time.
Registering public attitudes
In both speeches President Obama has referenced Americans’ growing realization that climate change is being felt today in the forms of deep and enduring drought, harsher storms and worsening wildfire seasons.
I think that’s an accurate sensing of attitudes, just as I think the most important rifts in public opinion have never been over whether climate change is real, nor even whether its impacts are likely to be both bad and serious, but whether the matter is urgent or not. We have divided over questions like these:
1. Are the catastrophes so far off in the future that I don’t really have to worry about suffering them in my own lifetime?
2. Is there any realistic way we can slow the rate at which we’re moving toward potentially disastrous climate patterns?
From following polls and the public conversation — and from plenty of personal conversations — I submit that more of us are answering those questions this way:
1. Cripes, maybe not.
2. Whatever we can do, we’d better do ASAP — especially about getting off oil, because it’s running out anyway.
Will many who feel this way take solace from the president’s messages? Hard to say, but I will take note that as many as 20,000 of them will be outside his house in Washington on Sunday for what is billed as the largest climate rally in U.S. history.
At least a couple of hundred Minnesotans will be among them, including two chartered busloads and another large group traveling together on an Amtrak run billed as the Earth Train. Boldface names in the crowd include Louise Erdrich, Kevin Kling, Prudence Johnson, state Rep. Frank Hornstein and my old Strib colleague Jim Lenfestey.
The main message of this Forward on Climate gathering is that Obama must cancel the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring more Canadian tar-sands oil to U.S. refineries for processing. But the president will be offered an earful and an eyeful on other climate issues as well. Some may suggest the time is entirely ripe for this White House to list “the 15 things we’re going to do” and more.
And some may even insist that they, their children and future generations deserve a vote, too.