Obama Oval Office address does not push fiscally sound energy policy

The policies President Obama mentioned suggested we ought to encourage clean energy technologies with subsidies, rather than tax corporations using unsustainable methods.

Dave Martin/AP Photo
In her nearly empty restaurant in Orange Beach, Ala., owner Regina Shipp listens to President Barack Obama's address concerning the oil spill on June 15. Shipp has filed claims with BP totaling over $33,000. President Obama said he would ask BP officials to establish an escrow fund to compensate fishermen and local businesses affected by the spill, but critics say he did not provide enough details about reforming the nation's energy policies.

Tonight the President acknowledged that the BP disaster is more than a lesson for BP and the oil industry. It’s a lesson for all of us that we’ve known about for a long time but found it more comfortable to ignore. But even the BP tragedy/debacle isn’t enough to get even the President to really “tell it like it is.” He speaks of the need for climate change policy this way (emphasis added):

So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling. But a larger lesson is that, no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk.

After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean: because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.

Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean-energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean-energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

…and yet he couldn’t seem to bring himself to talk about the kind of climate change policy that would not only avoid consigning our children to this awful environmental future, but would also avoid subjecting our children to an awful fiscal future. The policies President Obama mentioned sounded like vague “carrot” approaches–suggesting we ought to somehow encourage clean energy technologies (i.e., more subsidies! more spending!)…

This is not some distant vision for America. The transition away from fossil fuels is going to take some time. But over the last year- and-a-half, we’ve already taken unprecedented action to jump-start the clean-energy industry.

As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows and small businesses are making solar panels. Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient. Scientists and researchers are discovering clean-energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries.

Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs, but only if we accelerate that transition, only if we seize the moment, and only if we rally together and act as one nation: workers and entrepreneurs, scientists and citizens, the public and private sectors.

You know, when I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill, a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses…

…except for this only hint that maybe there would be taxes involved (shhhh!..don’t say the dreaded “T” word!–emphasis added):

Now, there are costs associated with this transition, and there are some who believe that we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy, because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security and our environment are far greater.

So I’m happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party, as long as they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings, like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development, and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.

…yet tonight he very carefully avoided explicitly acknowledging that the best way to encourage such clean technologies would be to (shhhh!–guess what?) make dirty energy less profitable to the industry and more expensive to the consumer–i.e., to take a more “stick”-like approach.

Like the way he talks about getting back to fiscal sustainability, the President says the one answer he will not settle for is that the challenge is “too difficult.” But like the way the President doesn’t like to spell out exactly what sorts of policies are needed to get us back to fiscal sustainability (entitlement cuts and tax increases), he also did not utter the phrase “carbon tax” tonight–precisely the kind of policy that could save our kids from both an unsustainable environment and an unsustainable debt.

Theoretically, none of these huge policy challenges are actually that hard to solve. In practice, the politics are just so screwed up that these huge problems (which seem to get huger by the day) seem impossible to solve.

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