Jekyll And Hyde: The Two Sides Of Obama’s Energy Strategy

President Obama during his 2013 State of the Union address CREDIT: AP
President Obama during his 2013 State of the Union address CREDIT: AP

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama once again tried to reconcile the split personality of his energy policy.

On the one hand, the President clearly stated his Dr. Jekyll commitment to cutting carbon pollution and fighting climate change. But not before he pushed his Mr. Hyde expansion of domestic fossil fuel production, starting early in the speech, where he touted this success: “More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world –- the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years.”

And he repeated this theme when he began the energy and climate part of his speech:

The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today, America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades….

It’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar, too.

Finally, he touted his climate policy:

Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But we have to act with more urgency -– because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air. The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

The climate passage is great. It shows that he is committed to using the power he has to cut carbon pollution without waiting for Congress to act.

But it is surprising that he stuck with his “all of the above” framing — given that just one week ago the leaders of pretty much every major environmental organization in the country sent him a letter saying this approach is fundamentally incompatible with his climate policy:

We believe that continued reliance on an “all of the above” energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution and would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption. With record-high atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rising threat of extreme heat, drought, wildfires and super storms, America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil….

… an “all of the above” approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America’s future….

An “all of the above” strategy is a compromise that future generations can’t afford. It fails to prioritize clean energy and solutions that have already begun to replace fossil fuels, revitalize American industry, and save Americans money.

In short, the State of our Union’s approach to energy is in a state of disunion.

What is the result of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy? First off, it is far from clear that total carbon pollution is actually lower — given how leaky natural gas production is and how potent a greenhouse gas methane is (see my November post “Bombshell Study Finds Methane Emissions From Natural Gas Production Far Higher Than EPA Estimates.”

Second, even ignoring the huge methane leaks, whatever benefit the shale-gas revolution has had in reducing U.S. emissions has also been vitiated by our all-of-the-above energy strategy and our continued coal extraction for export, as this chart makes clear:

America’s contribution to the global problem of ever-rising carbon production and consumption grows unabated.

I applaud Obama’s commitment to EPA standards on carbon pollution from power plants. But his continued embrace of “all of the above” energy reflects a true Jekyll and Hyde split personality.

Let’s hope that unlike the progression of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, Obama’s “Hyde” side doesn’t take over. We’ll know the answer to that whenever the President gets around to making the decision on Keystone XL — since the tar sands pipeline is simply not compatible with a serious commitment to avoiding catastrophic climate change.