Photo credit: US Navy
President Obama just wrapped up his speech on energy, and it played out largely as expected -- he called for more clean energy, electric cars, and high speed rail. He assured us all that nuclear power was still safe and still part of 'winning the future'. He called to drastically cut oil imports. He called for the nation to pick up the pace on clean energy investment, seeing as how we've slid behind China and Germany. He even acknowledged the existence of climate change! Aloud! And in public! Of course, the devil is in the details, and that's were this otherwise nice-seeming vision for America's energy future runs into trouble. Obama appears to be attempting to expand the definition of what constitutes as clean energy -- a maneuver he's been working on for some time. By this broader definition, natural gas -- which is increasingly obtained by the environmentally devastating practice known as fracking (though Obama was careful not to utter the term), or hydraulic fracturing, which looses toxic chemicals into groundwater -- sits next to solar and wind in the forecast for the nation's 'clean' energy mix.
So, of course, does nuclear power -- which emits no carbon, it's true. But there's a growing problem with storing waste, and clearly, concerns with the safety of many of our nation's plants -- a handful of which use the exact same design as the Fukushima plant that's still in the grips of crisis in Japan. And Obama certainly didn't mention how exceedingly expensive nuclear power is, just that he still plans on having the federal government fund some upcoming projects.
The highest-profile part of the speech was probably the commitment to reducing foreign oil imports by a third by 2025. It seems ambitious at first glance, but as Joe Romm points out -- we're already most of the way there right now. It's mostly a political stunt. Furthermore, given Obama's rhetoric and outline for the future, it seems as though he's not even taking into account the notion that global oil stores are already running out -- the man never seems to have heard of peak oil. And he's certainly not basing his public policies on an idea that most reasonable people agree upon -- even Saudi analysts and oil execs!
And then, there's coal. Obama noted that he remains dedicated to making both coal and nuclear 'work'. Fitting, because a widely-circulated announcement revealed that the administration is expanding coal production by leasing thousands of new acres of public land to coal companies. Clean coal is by a now a pretty thoroughly-exposed joke, but I suppose this expansion needed to be justified with even some of his feebler rhetoric.
Obama briefly hit on high speed rail, though he addressed it like he was talking about climate change in 2010 -- he made his point and backed off fast; the strange conservative opposition to sustainable transportation that's reared its head from Florida to Wisconsin looks like it's rattled him. He gave it a sentence or two, then moved on to a safer subject -- how America is going to make tons of electric cars, and that they'll be awesome! More reiterating of goals to put more electric cars on the road ensued. Yawn.
It was satisfying to see him take a dig at the empty-headed rhetoric espoused by the 'Drill, baby, drill' sloganeers' who have no substantive policy ideas when it comes to actually lowering gas prices or moving towards energy independence. And he did note that cleaning up energy production and investing in renewable power will create jobs But he refused to call out the obstinate Republicans who are threatening to derail any progress we've made with their irresponsible bill that would dismantle the Clean Air Act.
All in all, the vision that Obama laid out to 'Win the Future' of energy was limp, unconvincing, and lacking of true ambition. I know he's most certainly been discouraged by the extreme nature of the GOP's opposition to anything that might give renewable energy a leg up, reduce pollution in a meaningful way, or seriously grow domestic jobs in the alternative energy industry. But the solution is not to cave in and offer meek compromises that don't help us address climate change in any significant way. It's to stand up and fight.