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Obama Turns to Fossil Fuels

His State of the Union address emphasized increased fossil fuels production, in addition to support for clean energy.
January 25, 2012
Credit:, Pete Souza

President Obama seems to have a newfound love of oil.

In his State of the Union Address last night, he emphasized the development of domestic energy supplies, particularly oil and natural gas, but also solar and wind power. 

Although he called on Congress to pass legislation creating a clean energy standard, as he did last year, it was clear that he’s focusing on supporting clean energy by doing things within his administration that don’t require Congressional support.  

Last year Obama mentioned the word “oil” twice, the first time to call for the United States to end its dependence on it, and the second time to call for funding clean energy development by decreasing tax breaks for oil companies.

This year he mentioned oil nine times (10 if you include a reference to a regulation that categorized cow milk as an oil). Gone was any sense that oil was an addiction, as his predecessor George Bush had called it, or something the United States had to reduce its dependence on. He praised the fact that the U.S. produced more oil last year than it had for eight years, and he said that he is opening more areas for offshore drilling. When he called for the development of alternatives to oil, his reason was that we just don’t have enough of it in the United States. 

Although Obama sounded supportive of oil, he did call for an end to subsidies for oil companies and for Congress to “double down” incentives for clean energy. He also said he would continue efforts to make sure oil companies can contain oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Last year, Obama said that U.S. oil dependency could be broken by turning to biofuels and electric vehicles. He didn’t mention either this year. This is in spite of the fact that progress has been made on both fronts. 

Last year was the first full year of sales for new electric cars from GM and Nissan, and several more automakers will start selling electric vehicles this year. The first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants could also start operation this year. Sales of electric vehicles, however, have been slower than expected. And, by now, cellulosic ethanol plants were supposed to have been making hundreds of millions of gallons of ethanol, according to a federal mandate.

While Obama didn’t mention electric vehicles, he did talk about high-tech batteries, saying that the U.S. is “positioned” to become the leading manufacturer of these batteries. Presumably, he’s referring to electric car batteries and the large factories for making them that the government has subsized. The U.S. certainly is building a lot of battery factories. But it will be difficult for a new U.S. battery industry to compete with the established battery industry in Asia, and in any case, the success of the new factories will largely depend upon sales of electric vehicles increasing dramatically.

If Obama’s biggest emphasis last year was on biofuels and electric cars, this year it was on natural gas. He praised domestic natural gas as a resource that is both clean and cheap, and he said that exploiting it could employ 600,000 jobs by 2020. He didn’t say how many of those would be new jobs.

Although Obama praised natural gas, he didn’t mention any specific support for the industry. Indeed, his only pledge was that he would regulate it, requiring companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process for extracting natural gas from shale.

Some support for natural gas could come from the clean energy standard—in lieu of a cap and trade system for reducing carbon dioxide emissions—that Obama asked Congress to pass last year, and again this year. The standards would have supported natural gas over coal, since burning it emits about half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal. 

Although Obama mentioned the clean energy standard, that’s not really where he focused his attention last year. Instead, he’s been working to push forward clean energy by means that don’t require Congressional approval, such as new EPA limits on power plant pollution and tougher fuel economy standards. He spoke of working without the support of Congress in his speech, declaring that his administration would allow more construction of clean energy on federal lands, and that the U.S. Department of Defense would increase its use of clean energy sources. Expect Obama to continue this strategy, especially in an election year, when Congress is expected to get even less done.

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