The State of the Union and the Environment

The President delivering the 2012 State of the Union Address

The President delivering the 2012 State of the Union Address

By: Julia Reinitz

The first half of Obama's term saw the passage of the Waxman-Markey Cap and Trade Bill in the House. Obama nearly quadrupled clean energy production on public land - and yet, portions of his State of the Union Address on January 24th advocated heavily for that environmental demon, fossil fuel.

Under the ambiguous umbrella of an "all-of-the-above strategy," the President touted domestic oil production’s 16-year high, an alleged hundred year supply of natural gas, and plans to open 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. While the address also included remarks about the importance of passing clean energy tax credit, the number of concrete proposals expanding clean energy was tiny compared to the number of concrete fossil fuel based proposals.

Why is this the case?  Why such rhetoric from a President we all thought would be such a friend to the environment? There are a couple of reasons.

The most obvious reason is an election-year appeal to swing voters. These voters do not care how we lower demand for foreign oil, as long as we do so, and these voters believe in the mantra of Sarah Palin, “drill baby drill." This constituency is not, however so conservative that they simply would not vote for Obama are courted big time with terms like “all-of-the-above strategy." A 2011 Rasmussen poll found that approximately 50% of Americans would support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). ANWR famously sits on lots of oil, but is also a crucial area of habitat preservation in Alaska. The Obama Administration could woo these voters by expanding oil and natural gas production. In a similar vein, plenty of people are unhappy with the likely presidential veto awaiting that Keystone Pipeline deal. Promising other development of fossil fuels would pacify the people unhappy with the Keystone decision.

Another likely reason relates to the Solyndra scandal plaguing the Obama White House. Solyndra, a company that made silicone-free solar panels, received $528 million in federal stimulus money, and declared bankruptcy in August 2011. American citizens were nonplussed and upset with the waste of government funds. Critics of the Obama Administration cited the incident as proof-positive that the federal government should not subsidize private clean energy efforts. As more information about the scandal surfaced, the situation only appeared bleaker for President Obama. The findings of a House panel indicated that an improper loan restructuring performed by the Department of Energy paid private investors before payment to the government in case of a default. Furthermore, an audit of all of the loan guarantees of the Department of Energy, such as subsidies to clean energy firms, is concluding this week. The breadth and depth of said audit demonstrates the extent of distrust in the Obama administration policies on renewable energy.

It is not easy for any administration to set energy policy. Political controversies emerge from the delicate balance amongst environmental concerns, energy needs, and economic interests. A good example is the recent concern over “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuel extraction. Fracking illustrated the extent to which sweeping laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts still leave huge amounts of room for interpretation. The issue isn’t helped, either, by the fact that high-level federal courts rarely make rulings on environmental issues.

If you are the president of these United States, you have to take all of these interests and issues into consideration when directing the EPA and making proposals to Congress. I understand why Obama took the State of the Union in the direction he did. I do not think, however, there is a good reason to back away from protecting ecosystems and natural resources, especially fear of conservative criticism and the media. Stop arguing over Keystone, and stop trying to place blame for Solyndra, and give us the clean jobs we were promised.

Julia Reinitz is a first year in the College.