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State of the Union – Misses Energy Goals

President Obama has outlined energy policy goals in every one of his State of the Union addresses – until this week.  On Tuesday night, he avoided specifics and instead promoted positive domestic changes in fossil fuels and renewable electricity.

As gasoline prices continue to drop, low natural gas prices give domestic manufacturers a competitive edge, and the renewable energy industry breaks investment and installation records, the president used his speech to remind Americans how much had changed since he took office.

“We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump,” he said.

President Obama’s brief comments about energy were part of a broader narrative about how the country had turned around after a “breakthrough year” in 2014.  “Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years,” said the president.

The speech differed from previous years, when Obama focused on aspirational targets for clean energy and fossil fuels.  In 2009, the president demanded a cap-and-trade bill, and called for a doubling of renewable energy in three years. Renewable electricity did actually double in two years, but renewable fuels besides biodiesel have been slow to commercialization.  In 2010, he called for more advanced nuclear, a comprehensive energy bill and eliminating tax breaks for fossil fuels. Months later, the cap-and-trade bill flamed out. And although the administration has set aside small amounts of money for nuclear, it has not built a strategy for the technology.

In 2011, the President set a goal of putting one million electric cars on the road by 2015 and procuring 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2035. But sales of electric cars failed to take off, and the most recent figures from the Energy Information Administration suggest that America would only get nine percent of electricity from renewables by 2035.

Three years ago, President Obama endorsed an “all of the above” energy policy and supported unconventional oil and gas production.  He called for a national renewable energy standard, passage of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind, and a comprehensive energy efficiency bill from Congress. The PTC ended up passing, but Congress has done nothing on a national renewable energy law and the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill is still on hold.  In 2013, Obama stepped up rhetoric on climate change after environmentalists pressured him to talk about the issue during his campaign. He promised to use executive actions to clean up America’s energy mix, saying, “If Congress won’t act soon…I will.” This turned out to be one of the defining pieces of the president’s energy agenda.

That summer, he detailed his wide-ranging climate action plan, which included EPA regulations on existing power plants.  Last year, the President continued the “all of the above” rhetoric, and called for a bill that would boost use of natural gas in automobiles, that never got traction.

The only policy goal outlined by President Obama in this year’s speech was an infrastructure plan – which seems one way to hedge against his threatened veto of any legislation supporting Keystone XL pipeline.  He said, “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.”

The president wrapped up his energy remarks by hailing the recent climate agreement with China, wherein the US promised to double the speed of cutting carbon pollution and China committed to limiting their emissions after 2030, a deal questioned by many as allowing China to continue expanding GHG emissions for another 15 years while the US underwrites the costs of reducing its own.