Energy | Renewable energy | Ecotrope

8 Environment Issues In The State Of The Union

Ecotrope | Jan. 25, 2012 1:27 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:33 p.m.

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We had to wait awhile to hear what President Obama had to say about hot topics in the environment during last night’s State of the Union Address. (I didn’t hear anything about the Keystone XL pipeline, did you?).

And folks playing the Climate Progress State of the Union drinking game were probably sober and up all night with Obama’s lone mention of climate change (though I think the game might have been rigged).

“We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.”         —President Obama

But once Obama got warmed up, he wound up hitting on eight key issues, including how China’s trade practices are affecting American industries (like solar panel manufacturers), drilling for off-shore oil, fracking for natural gas in shale rock, subsidies for renewable energy companies, climate change (briefly), energy efficiency and smart grid.

Ironically, he got standing ovations for promising to open up 75 percent of the country’s potential offshore oil resources to drilling and for his pledge to end 100 years of subsidies to oil companies. Here’s the full line-up, roughly in order of their appearance in last night’s speech:

(Solar panel) Competition from China:

The U.S. solar manufacturers are fighting an uphill battle against cheap Chinese solar panels, which have been heavily subsidized by the Chinese government. Oregon’s  SolarWorld is among the companies that has been asking the feds to investigate China for trade violations. And recently wind tower manufacturers followed suit. Last night Obama addressed their concerns, indirectly, along with many other complaints about China’s trade practices:

 

“Now, I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules. We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration – and it’s made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. It’s not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. It’s not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they’re heavily subsidized.

Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.”

Offshore oil drilling (its related spills) and energy independence:

I saw plenty of debate on Twitter over Obama’s “double-speak” on killing subsidies for the oil industry while opening up 75 percent of the country’s potential offshore oil and gas reserves to drilling. First, he addressed the issue of energy independence:

“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. Right now, right now American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right – eight years. Not only that – last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.

But with only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”

And only much later did he mention the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which left a dark cloud over off-shore drilling:

“We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill – because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.

I’m confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder. But 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.”

Fracking (and disclosing the chemicals involved) for natural gas:

Obama stressed the country’s rapidly expanding supply of natural gas, thanks to the fracking process that allows companies to extract the gas from shale rock. He said he wants companies to disclose the chemical mix they use to do the fracking – a big issue as some fracking chemicals have ended up in nearby drinking water wells. He didin’t oppose fracking, though. And he didn’t talk about the economic incentive to export this newfound wealth of natural gas, or what exporting it might do to prices here.

“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.

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

Subsidies for oil vs clean (renewable?) energy

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.”      — President Obama

The failure of the solar energy company Solyndra – which left the federal government on the hook for a $500 million loan guarantee – has been a source of ammunition for Obama’s critics. Last night, Obama made the case for some government subsidies – such as the ones that supported fracking technology.

But he also called for an end to 100 years of subsidies for oil companies. He continued to use the term “clean energy,” which is not the same as renewable energy and, as he himself defined it in last year’s speech, includes both nuclear power and natural gas:

“And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

“Now, what’s true for natural gas is just as true for clean energy. In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.

When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance. But he found work at Energetx, a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts. Today, it’s hiring workers like Bryan, who said, “I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.”

Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. 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. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.”

Climate change … well, he mentioned it.

Judging from his speech last night, Obama’s answer to climate change and the lack of political support for addressing it directly through legislation appears to be investment in “clean energy.”

“We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives. The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.

But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.

So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will. I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power 3 million homes. And I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history — with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.”

Energy efficiency: An easy fix

I have to say I couldn’t quite follow Obama’s energy efficiency proposal during the speech, so it helped to see it written out in the transcript.

“Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s a proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”

“A power grid that wastes too much energy”

Bonneville Power Administration’s springtime struggle to balance the power coming from hydroelectric dams and the growing number of wind turbines in the Northwest got me interested in how the power grid works (and why sometimes it doesn’t). It’s complicated! Last night, Obama gave a shout out to smart grid transmission projects that are key to utilizing renewable energy sources efficiently. He promised to cut federal “red tape” that slows those projects down:

“Building this new energy future should be just one part of a broader agenda to repair America’s infrastructure. So much of America needs to be rebuilt. We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges. A power grid that wastes too much energy. An incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world.

During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. After World War II, we connected our States with a system of highways. Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today.

In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. 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.”

Mercury pollution/poison

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”We will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury pollution (poison), or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean.”

One element that underscored Obama’s mention of mercury pollution, a lot of which comes from coal-fired power plants, was his apparent swapping out of the word “pollution” in the transcript for “poison” in his speech. I wasn’t listening closely enough to hear the word as he said it. But it drew that much more attention to Obama’s support for mercury regulations, which some see as a financial burden, others see as a godsend, and still others criticize for being too weak.

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