Tuesday night, Barack Obama takes his first turn at an annual Washington spectacle. Honored guests, members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs, the Supreme Court and the new cabinet (minus one lower-ranking member who’s ordered to stay home, so we’d have a president if all of the above are vaporized) will assemble in the House chamber to applaud on cue for each facet of an ambitious new agenda for change.

There’s another part of the tradition that’s often overlooked: Over the years, for multiple presidents from both parties, the State of the Union address serves as a mini-telethon of good intentions and unfulfilled promises. Sadly, it’s one area where energy and the environment are way out in front of the political wave. Here’s a look back at some missed environmental targets from our last seven presidents’ State of the Union addresses:


“Restoring Nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party, and beyond factions.” Thus began the most stem-winding, all-encompassing environmental vision ever laid out by a president. He took particular aim at an American icon: “The automobile is our worst polluter of the air. Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards, and strengthen enforcement procedures -- and we shall do it now.”

All uttered, and some of it actually delivered upon, by Richard M. Nixon, in his 1970 SOTU speech. Nixon founded the EPA and signed off on the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other cornerstone environmental laws. But Nixon and his six successors combined for little, if any, progress on changing our energy economy.

Gerald Ford took aim at oil imports in his 1975 address: I have set the following national energy goals to assure that our future is as secure and as productive as our past: …We must reduce oil imports by one million barrels per day by the end of this year and by two million barrels per day by the end of 1977.”

At a time when the U.S. imported about four million barrels a day, Ford’s call to halve those imports backfired. They grew by about 15 percent during his short reign. In his 1978 speech, Jimmy Carter took another crack at it: “Never again should we neglect a growing crisis like the shortage of energy, where further delay will only lead to more harsh and painful solutions. Every day we spend more than $120 million for foreign oil. This slows our economic growth, it lowers the value of the dollar overseas, and it aggravates unemployment and inflation here at home.”

When Carter and his earnest, forward-thinking, message of energy conservation had left office, imports topped six million barrels a day.

Oil imports actually fell, and fell dramatically, during the early years of the Reagan administration, thanks to the surge of new domestic oil production in Alaska. Ronald Reagan’s empty SOTU rhetoric veered in another direction in 1984: “I have requested for [the] EPA one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency.”

But the budget increase for the EPA merely restored a fraction of the $200 million cut from the agency’s rolls during Reagan’s first three years. Deeply mired in scandal, EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford and 20 of her top appointees had resigned in disgrace the year before. Budget increases or not, the EPA’s effectiveness and morale never fully recovered.

The first President Bush seized on Reagan’s environmental indifference, calling in 1989 for tougher environmental cops: I'm directing the Attorney General and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to use every tool at their disposal to speed and toughen the enforcement of our laws against toxic-waste dumpers. I want faster cleanups and tougher enforcement of penalties against polluters.”

But Bush the Elder had no better luck than his predecessors in untangling long-stalled cleanups. The Superfund law, passed by Jimmy Carter in 1980, called for a tax on polluters to clean up toxic messes.

In 1993, Bill Clinton scored an applause line by taking his own poke at Superfund: I'd like to use that Superfund to clean up pollution for a change and not just pay lawyers.” No such luck. The EPA currently lists 1255 “priority” Superfund sites. In the 28-year history of the law, they’ve completed work on only 332 others. Many companies have escaped Superfund cleanup liability by simply declaring bankruptcy. In 1995, Congress changed the Superfund law to give taxpayers, not polluters, primary responsibility for the cleanup costs. In 2003, Superfund itself declared bankruptcy.

George W. Bush vowed in 2006, “tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22% increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.”

Just three weeks later, those words were thrown back at President Bush like a size ten loafer. A planned presidential photo op at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado went sour when it was revealed that NREL had just been decimated by staff and budget cuts. As for zero-emission coal, the Bush administration abandoned its public-private “FutureGen” project last January. As of this writing, there’s nothing in the works for so-called “Clean Coal.”

With a Congressional hammerlock on fuel efficiency and a growing economy spurring more cars on more roads, U.S. oil imports doubled again from the start of the Clinton administration to about 12 million barrels a day. Before the economic meltdown, we had topped out at 14 million barrels a day. That hammerlock may be broken, though. With both the auto industry and their biggest congressional protector, Michigan’s John Dingell, on the ropes, Congress passed higher fuel economy standards a year ago, and Dingell’s been ousted from his leadership post on the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

On the campaign trail, candidate Obama called for overhauling the energy economy, scaling back greenhouse emissions by 80% by mid-century. He’s assembled an impressive team to chase this and other energy goals. The Bush administration didn’t invent political manipulation of science, but they certainly turned it into an art form. Obama has vowed to protect scientific integrity. He’s also laid out an ambitious agenda to rebuild infrastructure and a return to aggressive enforcement of environmental laws. Agencies like the Interior and Energy Departments and the EPA have seen staff morale deteriorate, with career employees under siege from political hacks at the top that were indifferent, if not downright hostile, toward their agencies’ missions.

All of these things are likely to get a shout-out from the new president, followed by lusty applause. It’s all part of the pattern for issues that nearly everyone agrees are important, but we seem incapable of addressing on a national, sustained level. Let’s check back in a year or two to see if President Obama has continued the good-intentions tradition, or whether he starts a new one. Till then, hold the applause, curb your enthusiasm, and check the silverware.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)