Soapbox Post

President Obama’s election year State of the Union (SOTU) described an energy vision in which a win-win for the environment, health, safety and the economy would be achieved through an “all-of-the-above strategy” to expand domestic energy resources through offshore oil drilling and fracking for natural gas, with a side of renewables and energy efficiency. This is an energy future based at once on unrealistic win-win expectations for the future and on outdated protectionist thinking. The President’s policy misses several crucial points about energy systems design: 1) that trade-offs and difficult decisions are inescapable and 2) that energy independence is an outdated and insufficient strategy for planning our energy system in the context of global challenges.

First, some political background on the speech. Obama’s energy policy reflected his role as the ‘great compromiser’, his unbridled technological optimism, and his (understandable) election-year prioritization of jobs. The address came on the heels of the State Department’s decision to stall Trans Canada’s Keystone XL Pipeline. following a forced two-month decision window by Republicans in Congress. The politicized nature of the decision was evident when President Obama, rather than the State Department, announced the decision. What we heard was aimed at appeasing powerful energy industries following the Keystone upset. Yet, the U.S. and global energy future is too important to dismiss the speech’s substance altogether.

Tradeoffs and win-wins: After spending the beginning of the speech extolling the virtues of American high-tech manufacturing and innovation, one might expect to hear a more forward-looking announcement than ‘drill baby drill.’ Yet Obama introduced his energy policy by announcing, “we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration,” and I’ve directed the administration to open up “75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” The terms ‘renewable energy’ and ‘climate change’ were uttered only once by Obama during his speech.

The core of the energy policy was on bolstering energy independence through developing American supplies of natural gas. He promised environmentalists and publics shaken by eerie stories about the risks of hydrologic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ for natural gas, that he would require natural gas companies to disclose the chemicals in their fracking fluid (i.e. the mixture of materials ‘needed’ to extract the natural gas from tiny bubbles in shale formations).

Then he promised the untenable, that the jobs created by ‘clean’ natural gas will “prove that we don’t have to choose between our environment and the economy.” Yet, an energy policy based upon expanding offshore drilling and natural gas development is a policy in which sourcing energy supplies becomes more extreme—including riskier strategies to extract natural gas and more drilling in ultra-deepwater environments like the one where the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred. We ought not to pretend that such a policy would result in a win-win.

Nor would tradeoffs in energy systems design be avoidable if we figured out how to proceed without fossil fuels. The President’s announced he would spur clean energy innovation by “allow[ing] the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.” There is nothing particularly new about this policy, as the Departments of the Interior and Energy have already developed zoning plans for clean energy development on public lands. However, these efforts to develop alternative energy on public lands have illustrated the tradeoffs entailed in the design of energy systems that the President had just dismissed. Developing large-scale solar and wind power plants on public lands has led to significant land-use conflicts in response to the impacts to sensitive desert lands valued by local publics in the desert southwest. These are the sorts of difficult decisions we must address through sophisticated energy governance, rather than resorting to the rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too.

It should be noted that some estimates of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. place clean energy funding at close to 85 billion dollars. While the Obama administration has moved forward on these and other initiatives (such as increasing CAFE standards for fuel efficiency), further entrenching the fossil fuel economy in the imaginations and vocations of the American public does not help create the sea change which is needed to move beyond such dated technologies.

Energy Independence: The tenor of the SOTU speech hinged upon protecting American influence authority through economic and military dominance, which foregoes a more crucial perspective of global collaboration. The line: “Don’t let other countries win the race for the future” is a telling summation of Obama’s speech. Yet the reality is that we live in an increasingly energy interdependent world, one in which transmission lines cross national borders and no country alone has the construction materials or fuels to run its energy system independently. Not even Saudi Arabia is energy independent.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2012 U.N. address stands in contrast to Obama’s speech. Ban emphasizes the interdependence of the global human and ecological communities and the need for unprecedented collaboration in his opening remarks. His energy policy revolves around the “sustainable energy for all” initiative focused on renewables, efficiency, and access to energy. While these two leaders are responsible for very different constituencies, doesn’t it stand to reason that addressing climate change and instability-causing energy poverty in our domestic policy is in the U.S. interest?

While we agree that utilizing America’s manufacturing infrastructure could prove helpful for the growing renewable industry, painting the U.S. economy as the single top priority when the realities of climate change and energy poverty are left to the international community is an outdated and unprincipled decision. Unleashing our nation’s oil and gas resources to turn the American economic machine is perhaps not the wisest energy policy in the near or long term. Instead of imagining how we might “win the race for the future” the old way, we might consider how to contribute cohesively to what must be a strategic and global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. A policy based on U.S. energy independence and win-win idealism is simply insufficient for governing energy systems while facing the major challenges of our decade.


About the Authors: Jen Fuller is a PhD student in ASU’s Environmental Social Science program and Sharlissa Moore is a Research Associate at CSPO and student in the HSD program.
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