If there were anything in President Barack Obama's State of the Union to give hope to wistful environmentalists, it was the unprecedented promise to confront climate change with or without Congress, and to pursue new energy technology in the process.
Following his strong statements in his inaugural address about the ripeness of the moment to address a changing climate, Obama outlined a series of proposals to do it. Recognizing that the 12 hottest years on record all occurred in the last decade and a half, Obama said his most ambitious goal would be a "bipartisan, market-based solution," similar to the cap-and-trade system that died in Congress during his first term.(See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")
But without legislative action, Obama threatened to act himself using executive authority. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," he said. That will translate, White House officials said earlier in the week, to new regulations for existing coal-burning power plants and directives to promote energy efficiency and new technology research. (See related story: "How Bold a Path on Climate Change in Obama's State of the Union?")
The effort isn't one that can be stalled, he noted. Not just because of a warming planet, but also because of international competition from countries like China and parts of Western Europe that have gone "all in" on clean energy.
Energy experts signaled support of Obama's comments on energy security, including a plan for an Energy Security Trust to use revenue from oil and gas production on public lands to fund new energy research. "Clean energy businesses commend the president for reaffirming his commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address the damaging and costly impacts of climate change," Lisa Jacobson, president of Business Council for Sustainable Energy, said in a statement. The influential League of Conservation Voters perked up to Obama's vow to act on climate change, even if alone.
Noticeably unmentioned in the speech was the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the refining centers of Texas. Environmentalists have urged Obama to reject the project's application for federal approval in order to hold the line against carbon-intensive production from the oil sands. (See related blog post: "Obama and Keystone XL: The Moment of Truth?") Energy analysts believe Obama is likely to approve the project in the coming weeks, yet at the same time offer new regulations on domestic oil and natural gas development.
Other environmental analysts took Obama's remarks as simple talk, so far not backed by action. “How many times do we have to have the problem described?” David Yarnold, president of the Audubon Society said after the speech. “Smarter standards for coal-fired power plants are the quickest path to a cleaner future, and the president can make that happen right now.”
Obama's path toward accomplishing those goals will likely be lonely. In the Republican rebuttal to Obama's speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio sidelined climate change as an issue of concern and highlighted the deep partisan distrust. "When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air," Rubio said. He echoed the long-held Republican concern that remaking an economy may not be the wisest way to confront the problem of extreme weather.
Central to Obama's efforts will be his nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in his second term. Both roles were at times attacked over his first term, notably when EPA instituted new air and water regulations and DOE was caught making a bad investment in the now-defunct solar manufacturer Solyndra. If the tone of his State of the Union offers a blueprint, he'll choose people unafraid to act.