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Obama's Sputnik Moment: Strategy Over Substance

Barack ObamaDid you hear anything surprising in Obama's State of the Union address last night? Anything truly visionary? Me neither. Of course, that wasn't the point.

The SOTU was a continuation of what appears to be a strategic move to the political center, in preparation for a presidential campaign that's set to begin anew later this year.

Conventional wisdom would likely affirm this as a wise strategy: With split control of the Congress and a Republican Party apparently committed to denying the President any legislative wins whatsoever, few believe that the Administration has any shot of moving forward proposals that aren't endorsed by the other side of the aisle.

The thinking here is that Obama's best bet is that a split amongst the Republican base would tip undecideds and pro-business Republicans his way — especially if the Republicans nominate a Tea Party favorite and Obama makes sufficient gestures to win over corporate America. (This strategy, of course, is built on the assumption that liberal Democrats will hold their noses and vote for Obama in 2012 because they fear the alternative. Yes, progressives, he is taking you for granted. And if history repeats itself, this is another wise decision.)

Over the last two months, Obama has put this strategy into action — negotiating a compromise with Republicans that extended the Bush tax cuts and writing a curious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal aimed at reassuring corporations that he was willing to forego regulations for the sake of economic growth. His recent rebound in the polls seems to affirm the move. So if that's the goal, Obama accomplished everything he set out to achieve last night.

Of course, that's in the land of politics. Back in the "real" world of economic, energy, environmental, and equity crises, the gap between Obama's rhetoric and the kind of leadership that's required is stark. Below are some highlights of the energy portions of his speech:

Electricity Production

While the words "global warming" or "climate change" were conspicuously absent, Obama made investment in clean energy one of three pillars of his speech (the other two being education and the economy). He (re)stated a vision for 80% of our electricity to come from "clean" sources by 2035. That's great, except for this little disclaimer:

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all…

Considering that the US Energy Information Administration sees solar and wind playing a small supporting role in our energy future — as the below chart from PCI Fellow David Hughes' chapter in the Post Carbon Reader shows — it's understandable why Obama would want to include nuclear, coal, and natural gas in his definition of "clean energy." But wishing doesn't make it so.

 

"Clean coal" (ostensibly through carbon capture and sequestration) is both a blatant misnomer and impractical for all the reasons laid out by Richard Heinberg in Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis and elsewhere. I won't belabor the point here.

Bolstered by industry claims of hundreds of years worth of unconventional natural gas discoveries and environmental groups' (laudable) campaigns against coal, natural gas is suddenly America's energy darling. But documentaries like Gasland and a spate of frightening media stories are exposing the dark side of natural gas hydro-fracturing, while studies by the Environmental Protection Agency seem to belie the common claim that natural gas emits far less greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

Though cleaner than fossil fuels, nuclear is incredibly capital and resource intensive to build and maintain — requiring a massive outlay of fossil fuels for construction and an equally massive amount of freshwater to cool. (I'll ignore the safety concerns for the sake of this discussion.) Perhaps even more important, none of the three is renewable. So, while we're thinking about massive investments in "clean energy" shouldn't we thinking about making sure those sources will actually sustain us in the long-term?

Transportation

Perhaps the most substantive of all Obama's proposals was that related to high-speed rail.

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you [to] go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway…

Of course, within 25 years, the realities of peak oil are likely to make the percentage of Americans who travel long distance by train rather than planes or automobiles much higher, with or without the investment in high-speed rail (which Congressional Republicans seem likely to derail, at least in the near term). But that would be a major bummer to bring up. Much better to make it about those pesky pat-downs. On the "this sounds really groovy but something doesn't quite add up" front was the President's vision for continued happy motoring (to quote James Howard Kunstler).

With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

One million electric vehicles is a nice round number that happens to only be about 0.4% of the current passenger fleet in the US. So I hope the President knows something the rest of us don't about the prospects of next generation biofuels, something on the order of an energy miracle. I like miracles, really I do, but I've never actually, you know, seen one.

Subsidies

Another play calculated to win the approval of both progressives and conservatives was Obama's call to end subsidies for oil companies.

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.

A recent report by the Environmental Law Institute documented approximately $72 billion in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry between 2002-2008 - around $10 billion a year. If the Administration times a push for this right — say, to coincide with $4+/gallon of gas — and Obama can make a strong case that shifting these subsidies to fund the R&D investments he advocated for in his speech will be revenue neutral, perhaps he'll have a real shot at this. That'd be great.

But let's keep something in mind: $10 billion/year in fossil fuel subsidies is a rounding error on the amount of money we spend subsidizing our dependence on fossil fuels through highway construction projects and military operations in oil-rich regions of the world. While we're at it, we might want to look into that, too.

Ultimately, despite scoring high marks in public reactions immediately following the speech, Obama's own vision failed to set within sight the heights he called upon us to reach.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

How he intends to invest sufficiently in this innovation while meeting his pledge to "freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years," and "bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president," will be very interesting to see. But as long as he, Bill Gates, and the rest of us continue to believe that technological innovation will solve all our economic, energy, environmental, and equity crises, it won't matter much.

The task we face is much more challenging than flying to the moon. And that task? Learning to live within nature's budget of renewable resources at rates of natural replenishment. The good news is that the greatest creativity and innovation comes in the face of constraints.

Editorial Notes: Asher Miller is Executive Director of the Post Carbon Institute

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