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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Environment in the State of the Union

Air Date: Week of

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. (The White House)

President Obama says the United States is going to develop all forms of domestic energy, focusing on natural gas and clean renewables. But what he didn’t talk about in his State of the Union speech is equally interesting. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to New York Times blogger Andy Revkin and Reason Magazine science writer Ron Bailey about the president’s address.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Energy wasn’t at the front, but it certainly was at the center of President Obama’s third State of the Union Address:

OBAMA: I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I’m proud to announce the Department of Defense working with us, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, with the navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.

GELLERMAN: To discuss what the President said about energy and the environment in his address to Congress, and what he didn’t say, we turn to Andy Revkin and Ronald Bailey. Ron is science correspondent for the Libertarian monthly: Reason Magazine. Andy writes the dot earth blog for the New York Times and joined us by phone.

REVKIN: It was a very, I think a powerful speech. He was very aggressive on the political front in staking out a position that puts him in a contrast to the Republican field. Focusing on the sustainability bundle: things like energy and the environment. He said, pretty aggressively also, pushed backed against, the sort of critiques of the EPA by Republicans, and said that we do need regulation, and we do need to control pollution.

Andrew Revkin (Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies)

But he then pushed back against the liberal base and said we also need a lot more energy, so he was doing the classic kind of centrist approach to the environmental issues and really saying some pretty true things.


BAILEY: Well, I think the problem here is that we’re all in favor of smart regulation; the problem is he didn’t define what that would be. And there are a lot of people who would argue that some of the regulations that he’s promoting are not very smart when you get right down to it, especially with the regard to the production of energy in the United States. But it was a powerful speech, as far as these things go. But frankly, most State of the Union speeches are quite forgettable, and I suspect with the fulnesss of time this one will be too.

GELLERMAN: Well, he did speak about energy for quite a bit of time, I counted it, seven minutes of his speech went to just talking about energy and he really emphasized fossil fuels:

OBAMA: Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.


GELLERMAN: Ron? Andy? What was he talking about there? Which 75 percent of our potential oil and gas resources is he hoping to open up?

REVKIN: Well, presumably, that’s areas along the East Coast that he had already talked about.

Ronald Bailey (Reason Magazine)

BAILEY: Yeah, I think that’s right, he probably will be opening up more on the Atlantic coast. I actually live in a state, Virginia, which has asked the federal government quite vociferously to open up oil exploration off its coast and lets hope that’s the direction we’re going to be moving.

REVKIN: And I’m sure, you know, the idea is that you will see more drilling in the Gulf as well. The Gulf spill, which was so epic in the way it was portrayed in the media, was transitory. Those ecosystems are robust and, while it was epically disruptive socioeconomically in some parts of the country, it wasn’t epically disruptive to the economy itself, nor is there that kind of lasting memory.

BAILEY: Unfortunately in the aftermath of the oil spill, one of the problems is that the Obama Administration essentially did shut down production in the Gulf for awhile and about half the oil rigs that would have otherwise been there have now moved to other countries, so it’s going to take a while to build that back up. But I’m glad to see he’s moving in this direction.

GELLERMAN: The President did note that American oil production is the highest it has been in eight years and that last year we relied less on foreign oil, than in the past 16 years. I also read that the United States, for the first time in 62 years, became a fossil fuel net exporter.

REVKIN: Yeah, we’re exporting refined, you know, the refined fuels. And you’re going to see more and more of that, including the gas rush has created kind of an over-abundance of gas momentarily. So there’s quite a bit of talk of starting to export natural gas.

GELLERMAN: Well, we still need to import fossil fuels. This is what the President had to say:

OBAMA: We’re only two percent of the world’s oil reserves. Oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.


GELLERMAN: So, nothing off of the table, but, you know, I noticed he didn’t mention nuclear power. Um…

BAILEY: (Chuckles.)

GELLERMAN: He did say that we have a hundred years of gas supply, which I find kind of dubious because just recently the federal government came out with revised figures for the Marcellus gas play in the east coast and they reduced that by 66 percent!

BAILEY: Looking nationally what you find is, is that perhaps we don’t have a hundred-year energy supply of natural gas, but we have a 50-year supply, which is not inconsiderable. The President may have been exaggerating as politicians do in these moments, but a 50-year supply of natural gas is what is being projected now by our Department of Energy.

GELLERMAN: Andy Revkin?

REVKIN: Oh, yeah - not only the United States but in China - China even more so, which was energy poor when it comes to things other than coal, until recently. Now it has, I think, twice the estimated natural gas available in these shale rocks. It can play an important role in de-carbonizing; it’s a fossil fuel, but it’s got a lot fewer carbon atoms per molecule - basically it’s CH4, it’s one carbon and a bunch of hydrogens, so when you burn it’s a much better bet than coal, for example.

GELLERMAN: He did strike a familiar theme when he said we don't have to choose between the environment and the economy, but he didn't mention Solyndra, which was the solar company that went belly up in California that received federal funds. And he didn't mention Keystone pipeline, but he did defend federal funding for research:

OBAMA: Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas, shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out. Some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.

BAILEY: Well, the problem is, basically, what you’re doing is investing in companies like Solyndra, for example. If you’re trying to do research on improving solar cells, perhaps there’s a role for the federal government to do that. But, it’s certainly not the role of the government to start picking winners and losers among technologies and essentially functioning as venture investment for companies, I would argue.

One of the examples is, that the President used himself, was the basic technology that he claims that helped get the hydrofracturing going for the gas industry, right - the government didn't invest in Chesapeake Energy to do that, didn’t invest in any of the oil companies to do that, they just invested among the scientists to figure out how to do this stuff.

GELLERMAN: Well, what wasn’t mentioned was a comprehensive energy policy. Back in his first State of the Union, the President called for a carbon tax and a comprehensive energy and climate bill. It seems this time he’s accepting the political realities:

OBAMA: The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well, tonight, I will.

REVKIN: His only reference to climate change was in the negative, saying here’s an issue Congress that can’t figure out and then kind of saying: 'well let’s just see what we can do that’s climate-smart as opposed to climate-centric.' And so that, at least he got a mention in! I had written a piece a year ago saying where is the C-word in, it’s hard to mention the C-word in Washington these days, the ‘climate’ word.

And at least he got it in, but he hasn’t really stated a new post-pollution approach moving toward energy choices that come with fewer emissions and greenhouse gasses but doing it in a way that doesn’t threaten to upend the economy at the same time.

BAILEY: That’s really the problem, is that right now there is a trade off between the economy and the environment. If climate change is a problem, what they have to do is to make fossil fuels more expensive. And nobody wants to have to tell people that they’re going to have to increase their gasoline prices or pay more for electricity. And that’s the big fear on the part of the politicians and the President is just simply participating in that.

Watch the State of the Union

GELLERMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. Andy Revkin and Ron Bailey, thank you very much.

REVKIN: You’re welcome, it was great to be here.

BAILEY: Delighted to be with you.

GELLERMAN: Andy Revkin writes the dot earth blog for the New York Times, he’s senior fellow at Pace Academy for Environmental Studies. Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason Magazine, it’s a Libertarian public policy publication.



Andy Revkin on the State of the Union


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