Can we lower carbon emissions and also push more and more oil and gas production?

The environmental community got a shot in the arm following the 2012 election. After it had languished as a non-issue throughout the presidential campaign, Obama gave a shout-out to climate change in his victory speech on election night and two months later it was a focal point of his inaugural address.

The question on many minds following that speech was: would climate change rank high enough as an issue to appear in his State of the Union address? And if so, would its inclusion indicate a strong intent on the part of the president to act quickly? Or would it be a mere mention to placate those worried about the planet’s health, with no assurance that anything substantive would happen?

Last night we seemed to get our answer. Obama devoted almost a tenth of his speech to climate and energy.

Laying Down the Climate Gauntlet

About 18 minutes into the speech, following thunderous approval of the need to invest “in science and innovation” — and making the case specifically for our energy investments — Obama cogently laid out the reasons for acting on climate. (Or see here.)

“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

He went on to cite the mounting evidence.

“But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.”

He encouraged legislators to do their job.

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan market-based solution to climate change like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.”

Then he laid down the gauntlet.

“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct–I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

But Then … a Backtrack?

On the heels of his climate proclamation, Obama pivoted from the need to pursue clean-energy solutions like wind and solar to his commitment to continuing the pursuit of natural gas, and clearing the hurdles and speeding the development of new sources of oil and gas.

“In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.”

And here it was again, the energy theme Obama has come to embrace, his all-of-the-above policy. (See here and here.) In fact this policy was prominently featured earlier in his address too:

“Today no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.”

And he pointed with pride that:  

“We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years.”

Now, I know that growing natural gas supplies can supplant coal in electricity generation and thereby slow greenhouse gas emissions (provided there is not significant leakage of natural gas — an unresolved question). But natural gas, like oil, is a hydrocarbon and so burning it leads to carbon dioxide emissions, the very emissions we must cut to “combat climate change.”

So the question arises: Does it make sense to work to reduce carbon emissions on the one hand and facilitate new oil and gas production on the other?

Oil and Gas Revenues to Fuel Renewable Energy Technologies

Obama seemed to answer that question in his address by proposing we use “some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” It’s an intriguing way to get to a carbon-free economy. Just like wasps who lay their eggs inside a host prey so the eggs can hatch and feed off their host before killing it, the Energy Security Trust would siphon dollars from the oil and gas industry until renewables were strong enough to make oil and gas irrelevant.

Can it work? When I tweeted that question last night, Surfrider’s Chad Nelsen responded yes, kind of, with a caveat: “only if the acceleration of renewables (& electricity-based transportation) out paces extraction.” Over at Grist David Roberts pointed out that Obama’s proposal to use oil and gas revenue to fund an Energy Security Trust is essentially a tax and thus unlikely to receive congressional approval.

The bottom line is Obama’s in charge and so we’ll have to see how this plays itself out. But I am a bit uncomfortable. It feels to me as if the president is trying to play good guy with the environmental community and the oil and gas industries at the same time. At the very least I would like to see him explain how he reconciles the objectives of lower emissions and more oil and gas production, and how his all-of-the-above energy strategy will allow us to meet our climate objectives.


  1. JD
    Southern CA
    February 18, 2013, 12:42 am

    A solar plant and wind farm could be built in the same location, combining benefits of both. The “gas” Israel is developing is natural gas, btw…
    Fracking was mentioned in the first “Beverly Hillbillies” episode. This technology has been used for decades; it shouldn’t be demonized now.
    We are fooling ourselves to think these things can’t be implemented.

  2. JD
    Southern CA
    February 18, 2013, 12:35 am

    More liberal lies stacked upon lies. A constant campaign w/o any real leadership. The “middle class” is going to bear the burden of taxes, the rich who’ve worked hard are screwed. The only solution to energy is to raise prices so high we’ll have to stay home. So much for job creation. Oh, and take away guns and do away with the remaining Constitution too. Pass the legislation or what? This President becomes dictator for life?
    I wish so much Sarah Palin were Secretary Of Energy. She is the only person really qualified–with real world experience. Put God back into USA and we’ll do fine.
    Real leadership would encourage tax-exempt investment (let people invest SSA money here) converting heavy trucks/bus fleets into LNG and/or CNG; do more solar stations for home with electric cars. Cover parking lots & roofs with solar panels. Using electric cars w/CNG engine backup for daily transit (25-100 miles round trip) and charging overnight would best utilize our utilities. Get solar on every house in Southern states to hedge off peak power demand. Build solar plants in NV, AZ, UT, CO, TX, NM etc deserts. Connect the grid together with improved efficiency wires. Small windmills in breezy areas that won’t ruin environment & kill migrating birds. Recycle/reprocess used nuke fuel rods instead of burying. Invest in protecting our grid from nuke-generated emg pulse bombs.
    Small regional electric “peaker” plants can fill needs more efficiently than large plants running at less than full capacity.
    We could do this in eight years; and jobs would be created.
    We could purchase gas from Israel, which is developing a huge field (Biblical prophecy coming true). Imagine buying energy from a stable, friendly country; like we do from Canada. Perhaps sell them F-22’s to create more jobs.
    Encourage rain forest countries to replant what’s been cut & burned which would grow and help absorb CO2–and protect USA from weather etc. Sell Red China pollution controls to offset the deficit & debt…and protect USA from their pollution.
    Develop AK oil fields, off-shore on all coasts, and build Keystone…more jobs and also stash a portion of this additional available oil away in a second strategic oil reserve. Tap into that huge oil reservoir in Gulf of Mexico that previously blew out before our enemies or Mexico does it—more energy independence for USA.
    We could even fund healthcare via royalties…
    Grow hemp. Seeds are perfect food. Oil is versatile. Plants can be used for paper, fiber, energy…
    All we need to do is vote the right person into Wash DC…
    Or do nothing while our enemies write our obituary.

  3. Jorgen Madsen
    Astoria, Oregon, 97103
    February 16, 2013, 2:24 pm

    I do indeed comment or President for his concerns for the global warming. Global Warming, to my mind, is the most serious problem facing the population of the Earth. The increasing world population, the depleation of world resources, the increases of droughts and wildfires, the acidification of the ocean and the changing fish habitat, and the depleation of fresh drinking water, are serious matters for mankind. Mankind do not need to make more guns to kill each other, Mother Nature will kill every living thing on the face of the earth, unless every living human being pays attention to the scientists, and help where ever possible.

  4. KL
    February 14, 2013, 5:48 am

    Glad he’s pivoting to the environment while the country is still experiencing 14.5% real unemployment, $1 trillion plus annual deficits and a shrinking GDP foreshadowing a double dip recession. No wonder he’d rather talk about windmills and pipelines.