Obama Goes Backward on Energy

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TIME’s Bryan Walsh parses the President’s speech today at Georgetown:

..it’s a mark of how stagnant our energy policy has gotten that Obama was able to offer little more than he had a year ago. In fact, he could offer less. Last year there was at least a chance that the country could have both increased drilling, and a long-term carbon price. Now, for the most part, just the drilling remains, along with a suite of familiar policies: inducements to energy efficiency, second-generation (but still not commercial) biofuels, a portfolio for clean electricity sources and research and development. Obama pledged to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by one-third in a decade, but offered little new in the way to get there—even as the politics in Washington make any kind of action unlikely.

It’s notable that perhaps the most ambitious part of the President’s speech—his pledge, repeated from the State of the Union, to call for a Clean Energy Standard (CES) that would ensure 80% of our electricity would come from clean sources by 2035—still includes fossil fuels. Natural gas is part of that “clean energy,” and while it’s certainly cleaner than coal or oil, it still emits a lot of carbon. Like so much else in the President’s energy plan, the CES is defining down—from a strategy based around capping greenhouse gas emissions and explicitly supporting renewable energy, to something that looks more like “anything but coal.” The political realities of the moment may make that shift inevitable—and if the President really can steer us away from coal while supporting more energy efficiency, he’ll have done better than any of his predecessors on this sticky issue. But it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we’re going backwards on energy and climate.

The whole thing is worth reading, but I think it shouldn’t be underestimated how completely hogtied the political realities have Obama here and how events beyond his control — BP, Fukushima, Gasland etc. — have hurt even the limited “anything but coal” cause.