Obama's "All of the Above" Energy Speeches Leave Coal Out of the Equation

Chuck Kennedy for the White House/Public Domain

Obama's on the road, doling out a series of speeches that lay out his energy agenda. Yesterday, he hit a community college in Marlyand, and he's already brought the same message to North Carolina and Florida. Part of his re-election campaign, they're also intended to head off criticism that his policies are causing gas prices to rise. And they're actually quite good, detailed talks that contain a lot of smart points about fossil fuel production and global oil markets.

He has, of course, co-opted the GOP's 'all-of-the-above' energy slogan, implying that we've got to amp up renewable energy production and engineer cleaner cars, as well as mine, nuke, drill, and, yes, frack. And that's irked some in the green world, including, initially, myself. But while the GOP deployed the slogan as a euphemistic device to imply that sure, they embraced clean energy too (despite overwhelmingly pro-fossil fuels policy platforms), Obama is using the rhetoric as a shield with which to absorb the right's dubious criticisms that he's too green.

And there are primarily two important facets to this approach:

1) Obama's reaffirming a commitment to clean energy, and advocating for further investment and government support, despite the flack he's taking from Republicans for Solyndra and green socialism or whatever they're calling it at the moment. Perhaps he's doing so because polls continue to show large majorities of Americans are undeterred by Solyndra-speak and want more clean power. Whatever the political calculus, the end result is that the topic is kept at the fore of the public discourse, and that a space is maintained for further legislative maneuvering.

2. All of the above doesn't seem to include coal. The Rolling Stone's Jeff Goodell picked up on perhaps the most important aspect of these speeches:

There were no odes to "clean coal," no false promises about the number of jobs coal mining will provide in the future, no bullshit about how America needs coal to keep the lights on. Nor did the president mention coal in any of his riffs about energy in the recent State of the Union speech, or in his remarks about energy in North Carolina a few weeks ago when he promised to strip the fossil fuel industry of $4 billion in subsidies.
Goodell wagers that this reveals the waning power of the coal industry in politics—stumping for natural gas is enough to prove his fossil fuel-y mettle in coal-heavy states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. This is both because coal use is declining—the nation's share of coal-fired electricity has dropped to its lowest levels in decades—and because of the rise of nat gas production.

Even so, as Goodell notes, "In the world of energy politics, the sudden vanishing of the word "coal" is a remarkable and unprecedented event."

It's also supremely encouraging, and could mark the beginning of a trend: the fossil fuel's loosening grip on energy politics in D.C.

Like most plans he puts forward, Obama's energy agenda is heavy on compromise. Plenty of greens would prefer he took a harder line against fracking, for instance, or that he talked about climate change more. But the truth is, his progressive-leaning centrist approach is quietly moving the needle our way—and he's doing it in the midst of a particularly cacophonous political atmosphere stocked with clean energy witch-hunting foes to boot.

Tags: Barack Obama | Energy | United States