During his first State of the Union address tonight, President Obama focused his remarks on rebuilding the U.S. economy and improving the lives of middle class families. As part of that effort, Obama renewed his call for congressional action on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, which he said would make clean energy a cornerstone of America's economic growth and U.S. leadership in the global economy.
Obama Calls for Clean Energy; Defines It Too Broadly
After talking about the need for financial reforms in the State of the Union address tonight, President Obama said:
"Next, we need to encourage American innovation. Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history – an investment that could lead to the world's cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched. And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investment in clean energy – in the North Carolina company that will create 1200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels.
"But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.
"I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."
Environmentalists Silent on Controversial Energy Policies
Obama's call for clean energy is likely to please environmentalists—in fact, many environmental leaders have already issued statements of support—but the president also called for a new generation of nuclear power plants, offshore oil and gas development, advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And although Obama was careful to couch those strategies in terms of safety and clean energy, most environmentalists have usually either opposed such measures outright or have expressed strong reservations about some or all of them. Yet, in the hours following the president's speech, most of the environmental community has remained strangely silent on those issues.
Obama Separates Clean Energy, Climate Change
Obama also threw a bone to climate skeptics in an effort to win their support for his clean energy agenda.
Although he referred to the evidence for climate change as "overwhelming," he also made it clear that he doesn't consider belief in the causes, potential effects, or even the existence of climate change a precondition for the America's need to build a clean energy economy.
What Do Environmentalists Say?
Responding to the president's speech, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement:
"All eyes remain tightly focused on the United States Senate. With millions of Americans still out of work, it's time for the Senate to get serious about passing bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. In addition to slashing our dangerous dependence on oil and creating millions of new jobs, clean energy legislation will restore American industry, rebuild the middle class, and rescue our economy by putting it back on a path to long-term, sustained prosperity.
"In the year ahead, Congress faces a stark choice: build a clean energy economy that puts America back to work and makes us more secure, or bail out Big Oil and other polluters and maintain a dirty energy status quo that we can quite literally no longer afford.
"Just this week, Brazil, India, China, South Africa and other countries reconfirmed the commitments they made last month in Copenhagen. These commitments were made as a direct result of President Obama's personal leadership and Congress now needs to do its part to show that America is ready to lead. Unless Congress acts soon, we risk falling further behind in the ongoing global race to build the clean energy industries that will fuel the world's economies in the 21st century."
The Sierra Club statement is pretty typical of the early comments coming from the environmental community. Most are backing Obama's call for final passage of climate and clean energy legislation, and his efforts to get the Senate to move on the bill it has been wrestling with for the past several months. But their reluctance to comment on those other issues—offshore drilling, clean coal, and the rest—is likely to be short-lived. Once the White House and its federal agencies start moving to approve and execute those strategies, the outcry is likely to be as deafening as the silence is tonight.
Other Obama State of the Union Speeches