January 28, 2015

Obama’s Victory Lap: State of the Union Speech Celebrates Domestic Energy Changes

The president avoided a specific policy agenda and instead focused on America’s domestic successes.
President Obama has outlined energy policy goals in every one of his State of the Union addresses. But he avoided specifics in tonight's speech and instead celebrated positive domestic changes in fossil fuels and renewable electricity.

As gasoline prices continue to drop, low natural gas prices give domestic manufacturers a competitive edge, and the renewable energy industry breaks investment and installation records, the president used his speech to remind Americans how much had changed since he took office.

"We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump," he said.

If that solar statistic sounds familiar, it was adapted from data on U.S. installations compiled by GTM Research's Shayle Kann. In 2014, there were twenty-two times as many solar installations as there were in 2008.

President Obama's brief comments about energy were part of a broader narrative about how the country had turned around after a "breakthrough year" in 2014.

"Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years," said the president.

The speech differed from previous years, when Obama focused on aspirational targets for clean energy and fossil fuels.

Jennifer Dlouhy, an energy reporter from the Houston Chronicle, compiled quotes on energy and the environment from all six of the president's State of the Union addresses. They show a mixed track record on achieving targets from previous speeches.

In 2009, the president demanded a cap-and-trade bill, and called for a doubling of renewable energy in three years. Renewable electricity actually doubled in two years; however, renewable fuels have largely struggled.

In 2010, he called for more advanced nuclear, a comprehensive energy bill and eliminating tax breaks for fossil fuels. Months later, the cap-and-trade bill flamed out. And although the administration has set aside small amounts of money for nuclear, it has not built a strategy around the technology. 

Obama declared 2011 a "Sputnik moment" for energy innovation, setting a goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 and procuring 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2035. The White House later walked back the EV goal after sales failed to take off as expected. And the government's energy research arm, the Energy Information Administration, later released an analysis showing that America would only get 9 percent of electricity from renewables by 2035 -- an absurdly low assumption, but not a positive message for the White House.

In 2012, the president fully embraced the unconventional oil and gas boom, and used a phrase that roiled environmentalists: "all of the above." On clean energy, he called for a national renewable energy standard, passage of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind, and a comprehensive energy efficiency bill from Congress. The PTC ended up passing, but Congress has done nothing on a national renewable energy law and narrowly failed to pass the Shaheen-Portman efficiency bill last year.

In 2013, Obama stepped up rhetoric on climate change after environmentalists pressured him to talk about the issue during his campaign. He promised to use executive actions to clean up America's energy mix, saying, "if Congress won’t act soon...I will." This turned out to be one of the defining pieces of the president's energy agenda. That summer, he detailed his wide-ranging climate action plan, which included EPA regulations on existing power plants.

In 2014, the president was a bit lighter on specifics. He continued using the "all of the above" phrase, and called for a bill that would boost use of natural gas in automobiles. That bill never made it through Congress.

The only policy goal outlined by Obama this year was an infrastructure plan -- seemingly as a way to hedge against his threatened veto of a bill supporting Keystone XL.

"Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come," said Obama.

Other than a brief mention of an infrastructure bill, tonight's State of the Union speech was more about framing the domestic energy boom as part of a recovering America rather than laying out new goals.

The president wrapped up his energy remarks by hailing a recent climate agreement with China that could boost prospects for global climate deal.

"In Beijing, we made a historic announcement -- the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got."

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