In a State of the Union address Tuesday that focused heavily on "fair play," President Obama spent a lot of time talking about economic inequality and the tax code. But this was also part of a broader theme about sustainability, one in which Obama repeatedly called for a nation that's "built to last."
A large chunk of Tuesday's speech was dedicated to energy issues, starting with Obama's pledge "to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources." That may have been an olive branch to Republicans, especially in the wake of the Keystone XL saga. Obama didn't mention Keystone by name, but he did try to defuse GOP attacks over the issue, pointing out that U.S. oil production is now the highest it's been in eight years, and that the U.S. relied on less foreign oil in 2011 than it has in 16 years.
While some environmentalists bristled at Obama's promise of more oil and gas drilling, he was quick to pivot back to his sustainability theme. "With only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, oil isn't enough," he said. And, borrowing a GOP slogan, he added that "this country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy."
As intended, that line drew bipartisan applause. And while Obama went on to expound the virtues of natural gas — saying America has a supply that can last 100 years, and that can support 600,000 jobs by 2020 — he used this argument partly as a stepping stone to expound the virtues of federal support for renewable energy.
"And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 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," Obama said. "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."
Obama seemed to have Solyndra in mind during this part of the speech, and he clearly expects the failed solar power company to play a role in this year's presidential election. His first campaign commercial of 2012 takes on the Solyndra criticism directly, responding to attacks from groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which is reportedly spending $6 million on new ads blaming Obama for the fiasco.
In his speech Tuesday, Obama was emphatic that government support for up-and-coming industries is key to U.S. energy innovation and independence, and he dwelled on the comparison between natural gas and renewable energy. Just as federal investments planted the seeds for today's shale gas boom decades ago, he argued, similar investments in solar and wind power will take time to bear fruit.
"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."
As MNN's Chris Turner recently wrote, the outlook for U.S. solar power is actually bright — assuming it, along with other clean energy sources, continue to receive the federal support long given to fossil fuels. And to that end, Obama reiterated his vow to end subsidies for big oil companies and offer more help to struggling startups. "We've subsidized oil companies for a century. That's long enough," he said. "It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising."
Obama acknowledged that differences on Capitol Hill are "too deep right now" to pass a comprehensive climate bill, but he added that "there's no reason why Congress shouldn't at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation." And to get the ball rolling, he then made these two announcements:
"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, working with us, 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."
The speech featured several other nods to energy issues, including a request for legislation to cut energy waste in U.S. factories and offer incentives for businesses that upgrade their buildings. Obama also pledged to prevent a repeat of the 2010 Gulf oil spill — a relevant promise after his offshore drilling announcement — and said he "will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean."
Obama chose not to mention Keystone XL Tuesday night, even though he rejected the proposal just one week ago — and even though House Speaker John Boehner invited Keystone supporters to the speech, shortly after suggesting the pipeline could be revived via a payroll-tax bill. Obama's embrace of natural gas may be an attempt to quell GOP anger over the pipeline, similar to how he embraced nuclear power and offshore drilling in early 2010, part of a failed attempt to win support for a climate bill.
And aside from his focus on fairness and sustainability, that kind of Capitol Hill diplomacy was a major theme of Obama's speech Tuesday. He opened and closed the address by calling on Congress to join him "in common purpose" and to "maintain our common resolve." In the official GOP response, though, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took issue with Obama's framing. "It's not fair and it's not true for the president to attack Republicans in Congress as obstacles on these questions," he said. "No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us."
The "built to last" theme may have drawn applause Tuesday night, but it seems unlikely that very much will be built in Washington over the next 11 months.
If you missed the speech, check out the video below:
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