It’s an election year, another presidential campaign is upon us, and since it is going to be so very much upon us every day from now until November, it would be nice to find something about which to get excited.
There is nothing to get excited about on the Republican side of the aisle. The knock-down, drag-out contest between the stupid, the rude, and the just plain offensive may provide the Democrats with the best gift since, oh, you know, the last Republican president, but for the American people, none of the GOP contenders is a prize. It will be truly hellish to have to listen to any one of them for the duration of the campaign.
So, when I turned on the TV last night, I wanted to stand up and cheer. While watching President Obama’s State of the Union address, I felt much like I did when I watched his 2008 acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver. OK, that’s not true–not hardly. Reality has not been kind to Obama’s rhetoric, after all. But when Obama got to the energy section of the speech, I found much to applaud, not unlike in 2008. . . with some obvious caveats for his praise of dirty, dangerous, failed or flat-out fictional forms of energy production.
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During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama always made a point of touting “clean coal” in his energy policy stump speech. As president, he included this nonsense phrase in both his 2010 and 2011 State of the Union speeches. This year, however, though Obama extolled an “All of the above” energy mix, and then went into some detail about what that “all” should include, there was no reference to coal, “clean” or otherwise (AKA “dirty,” AKA “the way coal actually is”).
The ’08 campaign contained frequent references to nuclear power, too. Obama also would clean those up, often by calling for “safe nuclear.” It was, to my ear, just as imaginary–and just as dishonest–as “clean coal,” and it made me wary of a candidate that I already knew was heavily dependent on nuclear industry contributions to fund his campaign. But last night, “nuclear” only came up three times–twice while talking about Iran, and once more when discussing nuclear proliferation, in general. There was no reference to nuclear power.
Funny that. I guess with 44 domestic coal mine fatalities since Obama took office, and with approximately 20 percent of US coal-fired power plants failing to meet clean air standards, maybe coal doesn’t sound so much like “winning the future.” And after nuclear power’s 2011–with Japan’s Fukushima disaster still metastasizing and dozens of smaller events at aging plants here raising important questions about safety–touting atomic energy is not how you fuel “an America built to last.”
And therein lies the big, flashing yellow caution. For while Obama’s speech did much, again, to sing the praises of investment in clean, green, renewable energy sources, I know that whatever the president allots to alternatives in his next budget (we still do budgets, right? not just hostage-taking, continuing resolution kabuki stand-offs), it will be but a tiny fraction of what he has already given to and will continue to shower upon the fossil and fissile fuel lobbies.
There are several examples of this rhetorical shell game in the State of the Union speech. While Obama did make this admirable call:
We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising.
It was only moments after the president said:
Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.
I worry, too, that when Obama says, “I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects,” that what he means by “red tape” is what many call “environmental protections.” Or “workplace safety rules.” Or “worker rights.” Just as I worry that when I hear, “I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes,” it is opening a door to more private development on public lands.
Is this cynical? Perhaps, but it is hard not to be when you hear the president claim, as he did last night, “I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago,” when just a day earlier it was revealed that the Obama administration actively worked to downplay the size of the BP spill.
And so what is the public to make of Obama’s section on natural gas?
We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.
So many questions. First off, it is important to note that Obama is talking about fracking without ever using the word. That’s what it means when the president says he will require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use–these are the chemicals that make the “hydro” in hydrofracking heavy enough to do its job. And these are the chemicals that have likely poisoned some aquifers and promise to befoul even more.
But the poisonous and all-too-secret chemical composition of the injection liquid is only one of many problems with fracked natural gas. There is mounting evidence that fracking is responsible for increased seismic activity in the US and abroad. And, of course, there is the $64 question of whether we should be investing in and smoothing the way for a finite resource that will contribute to CO2 emissions at a time when the world is fast approaching irreversible climate change.
But push that aside, and the president’s fulsome gas promises are still mostly hot air. That name-your-chemicals rule? It only applies to drilling on public lands. And the president doesn’t say if it will apply to projects already approved, or just future leases. And those 600,000 jobs? I need the administration to show its work, for that number sound suspiciously like the trumped up job figures floated in the push for the Keystone XL pipeline–where it turned out that every year of a job counted as a separate job, and that many positions were low wage or instantly redundant.
With so much so easily picked apart, it is hard not to hear “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” as the 2012 edition of “I promise this won’t hurt a bit,” or “the check is in the mail”. . . or “clean coal.”
But, as I said, I want to stand up and cheer, and so let me close by cheering this:
Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally-financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched. New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future. Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.
Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy.
. . . .
Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.
Yes, I will admit, that internal ellipsis mark covers many, many paragraphs, but though the execution laid out within is mixed, the overarching sentiment should be one of the clarion calls of this election year. As I recently explained at some length, real innovation is essential to America’s future, and basic research is essential to real innovation. And government money spent on basic research provides much more bang for the buck than money spent on propping up out-dated energy sources and the military industrial complex.
Obama doesn’t say “peace dividend,” but that is what he is talking about. It is a dividend that could grow if the president follows through with his drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and it is time to start building into the discussion the idea that this money will be repurposed to spur innovation, rebuild our infrastructure and invest in education. This is a wealthy nation, and the US should spend its wealth on programs and projects that benefit the vast majority of its people–say, 99 percent of them–and not just use the current lull in foreign incursions to fund more tax cuts for the richest one percent.
For reinforcing that frame, and for at least sowing the seeds of a re-prioritized economy, I applaud the president. Now it is up to him to play on the pitch he has planted. Given the scores of disappointments that have trailed after so many of Obama’s lofty speeches in the past, I am wary that this is little more than another field of dreams–but guess what, with alternative energy, education investment, and a modernized infrastructure, if you build it, “an America built to last” will quite possibly come.
Too hopey-changey? Well, at least he’s stopped shilling for “clean coal.”