Listening to the State of the Union last night, I couldn’t help but notice that energy has become a hot issue – it was mentioned far more times than most other issues. I checked later on and saw I wasn’t wrong – energy was mentioned 23 times, setting a new record (at least for this century) and coming third after jobs/employment (35 times) and taxes (34 times). This is pretty impressive, but still, when I turned off the radio in my car by the end of the speech, trying to digest what I’ve just heard, I was left with mixed feelings.
The reason was that while President Obama spoke about providing strong support for cleantech, he also includes support for dirtier energy resources like offshore oil and shale gas, as part of his vision of developing “every available source of American energy.” So he ended up providing both good news and bad news for those hoping he will lead America to a more sustainable future. You have to be naïve if you don’t understand that politics, especially on an election year, is the art of compromise, but at the same time when it comes to energy it seems like it’s almost impossible to have your cake and eat it too.
President Obama made his energy vision very clear, explaining that “this country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy. A strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.” Under the definition of American energy he included natural gas, offshore oil and clean energy sources like solar and wind, letting us to believe that for him these are all important parts of the energy future of the U.S.
Let’s look first at the good news that President Obama provided last night:
- Clear commitment to continuing development and funding of cleantech projects – “I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy… I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.”
- Calling again to end the subsidies for oil companies – “we’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.”
- Asking Congress to set a clean energy standard that “creates a market for innovation.”
- Providing public land to allow the development of clean energy “to power 3 million homes.”
- The U.S. army will significantly increase its use of clean energy – “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.”
- Adding energy efficiency to the clean energy mix – “Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy…Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings.”
- Requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use “because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”
- Last but not least, it’s also about what wasn’t mentioned. Unlike last year, clean coal and nuclear energy weren’t included this time.
And now for the bad news:
- More exploration of offshore oil and gas – “tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.”
- Supporting further development of natural gas resources – “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
- Characterizing natural gas as a clean energy option – “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”
- Giving a ‘kosher’ stamp to Hydraulic fracturing – “we have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
As you can see there are more good news than bad news, but it’s not the number that counts. What matters is that President Obama addresses shale gas, offshore oil and clean energy all in a positive manner and suggests that what best for the economy and the environment is to support all three equally. This is unfortunately not true. We’re talking about competing energy resources and not about complementary goods.
This is certainly disturbing when it comes to shale gas, not only because of the environmental risks of fracking, but also because of its impact on renewable energy sources. A study of MIT researches that was published last month, ‘The Influence of Shale Gas on U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy’ provides interesting projections of the impact of shale gas on GHG emissions and the development of renewable energy. It shows that while the biggest effect of shale gas is that it would push out coal, which is a positive climate impact, the expansion of shale gas would also put limits on the expansion of other clean energy sources, because natural gas power plants would tend to be cheaper than wind or solar. In other words, more cheap shale gas means less solar and wind power.
There is no doubt that President Obama is committed to the environment. Nevertheless, if he really wants ‘An America built to last’ he should take into consideration that his vision of American energy might be a good fit for meeting some of America’s short-term challenges, but not necessarily the long-term ones. An America built to last is actually a sustainable America, one that can only be established on clean energy and not dirty energy, no matter if it’s local or not.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.