Obama speech to highlight congressional inaction

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

President Obama will report to Congress tomorrow about how he’s bypassing it on energy and climate.

In past State of the Union addresses, Obama has made some big asks of the legislative branch, like passing a sweeping energy and climate bill, eliminating federal oil subsidies and setting a clean energy standard.

Those days are over.

When it comes to energy, Obama’s annual speeches have gotten increasingly pugnacious toward the deeply divided legislative branch, which has failed to act on measures with broad bipartisan support — and has even struggled to keep the government’s doors open, thanks to bitter budget disputes.

Obama set the new tone last year. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he said in his last State of the Union speech, directing his Cabinet to circumvent the lawmakers seated around him on the House floor.

He launched the executive branch offensive in June, when he announced his Climate Action Plan. It calls for new rules to limit power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions, sets goals for renewable energy development on public lands and provides loan guarantees for low-carbon fossil fuel projects, among other directives.

Expect Obama to tout his administration’s work so far on those efforts, as he tries to sell his plans to a broader national audience.

“What he has signaled and what he continues to say is that he will use his existing legal authorities — these are authorities in the law today, on the books — to get the job done reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama’s former top energy and climate adviser, Carol Browner, told reporters Friday. “I’m sure it will be part of his comments in the State of the Union.”

As he’s done in previous years, Obama might even rub it in that Congress can’t find common ground on these issues.

“The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change,” he said in his 2012 speech. And last year, Obama even called out by name Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — his rival in the 2008 presidential election — noting that McCain had worked across the aisle on a climate bill a few years ago (he later retreated on the issue).

Preparing for the impacts of climate change has become a major talking point for the administration, and adaptation efforts could factor into Obama’s speech tomorrow. The president recently issued an executive order directing the government to take steps to get ready for impacts like higher temperatures, increased wildfires and sea-level rise.

When it comes to energy, Obama is likely to tout domestic production — including the natural gas boom — highlight the importance of energy efficiency and call for upgrades to the nation’s aging energy infrastructure.

And job creation is expected to be central to everything.

Earlier this month, Obama declared 2014 a “year of action,” when it comes to job creation. He pledged to use tomorrow’s speech to “mobilize the country around the national mission of making sure our economy offers everyone who works hard a fair shot at opportunity and success.”

Obama’s critics in the GOP and industry stand ready to rip into his speech tomorrow, and they’re not likely to respond kindly to any announcements about bypassing their branch of Congress when it comes to energy and climate.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), will deliver the GOP response after the address. She’s a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power and has been a vocal critic of the administration’s energy policies and environmental regulations.

Tea party leaders have announced that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) will deliver their response to Obama’s speech, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will be giving his own prerecorded rebuttal on YouTube.

Wish lists

Ahead of the hallmark speech, Obama’s backers and critics alike have been rolling out their wish lists.

Green groups will be paying close attention to whether he touts an “all of the above” approach to energy.

He’s used the phrase in his last two addresses to Congress to show his support for both traditional and renewable energy sources. “This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” he said in his 2012 speech.

But a coalition of major environmental groups recently called on Obama to stop touting that strategy in favor of prioritizing renewable energy sources (E&E Daily, Jan. 17). One of Obama’s top advisers, John Podesta, swung back, saying Obama has been leading the transition to low-carbon energy sources (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, sees the speech as a chance for Obama to reiterate the points he made in his June climate speech.

“I think one area that we’d like to see the president be more specific about is regulation of methane emissions and also other issues around natural gas development,” Lashof said. “He’ll probably continue to reiterate the benefits from expanding production, but we certainly believe that the president needs to be more forceful in calling for safeguards where production is taking place.”

The Center for American Progress is hoping Obama will mention the word “conservation” for the first time in a State of the Union speech. The liberal think tank last week called on Obama to challenge Congress to designate new parks, monuments and refuges — and to commit to taking those actions himself if Congress fails to act (Greenwire, Jan. 24).

CAP leaders have also laid out a list of climate policies they’d like to see. They asked Obama to set greenhouse gas reduction limits for 2025 and 2030, extend renewable energy tax incentives through 2020, block oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, oppose demands to allow the export of domestically produced oil and develop a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions from energy production on public lands.

Obama isn’t expected to touch on the contentious Keystone XL pipeline in the speech while the State Department readies its final environmental review but that doesn’t mean he’s not getting plenty of pressure.

Several activist groups, including 350.org and the Energy Action Coalition, are planning to protest the proposed oil pipeline by marching through the streets of Washington, D.C., tomorrow with a giant inflatable pipeline. And all 45 Senate Republicans on Friday appealed to Obama for a decision, raising the profile of the long-simmering debate ahead of the much anticipated speech (Greenwire, Jan. 24).

Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, wants to hear Obama lay out policies aimed at making the United States a global energy “superpower.”

“We’re now on the threshold of becoming the energy superpower of the world. But policy matters … the president could lead the nation in a bipartisan way and could really set a tone that would put us in that secure position for many years to come,” he said

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Institute, said she’d like Obama “to acknowledge our new era of energy abundance and embrace our pro-growth energy agenda.”

If that isn’t going to happen, she said, “We want him to say nothing at all about energy in the State of the Union.” Harbert added, “Virtually everything positive that has been happening in our energy landscape has been occurring in spite of this administration’s policies. So at this point, the best we can hope for is that the White House will get out of the way and let the energy revolution continue.”