Five Energy and Climate Questions to Watch at State of the Union

Demonstrators march to City Hall during the 'Forward on Climate' rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis on February 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Jan. 27, 2014, 3:55 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on speech Tues­day will of­fer a win­dow onto fights over cli­mate and en­ergy policy that will un­fold dur­ing the re­mainder of his pres­id­ency.

Don’t look for much more than rhet­or­ic­al nods, at most, to­ward steer­ing ma­jor le­gis­la­tion through the di­vided Con­gress. But plenty of ques­tions re­main about how Obama will wield his ex­ec­ut­ive power over the next three years.

Here are a few things to watch for to­mor­row night:

Is “all of the above” still all the rage?

Or, put an­oth­er way, will Obama tack left on en­ergy?

In last year’s speech, Obama re­peated his sup­port for an “all of the above” en­ergy strategy — one that backs ex­pan­ded do­mest­ic fossil-fuel de­vel­op­ment along­side green en­ergy.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, who are a piece of Obama’s base, are kind of an­noyed with “all of the above” these days.

A num­ber of ma­jor green groups this month pub­licly broke with Obama and urged him to ditch the policy. But the let­ter from 18 en­vir­on­ment­al groups to the pres­id­ent also drew push­back from Obama ad­viser John Podesta.

“All of the above” is just a few words. But wheth­er or not Obama re­peats the phrase could hint at how he will ap­proach the oil-and-gas in­dustry dur­ing his re­main­ing years in of­fice — and wheth­er more col­li­sions with the pres­id­ent’s en­vir­on­ment­al base are in the off­ing.

Green groups want him to back off his cau­tious sup­port for Arc­tic oil, get tough­er on emis­sions of meth­ane — a po­tent green­house gas — from oil-and-gas de­vel­op­ment, and scuttle the Key­stone XL pipeline, among oth­er steps.

“We have three years left, so the clock is tick­ing,” said Jes­sica En­nis of Earthjustice, one of the groups that signed the re­cent let­ter, dur­ing an in­ter­view that aired Sunday on Platts En­ergy Week TV.

Will rail­way safety and the West Vir­gin­ia chem­ic­al spill draw a re­sponse?

Re­cent ac­ci­dents in­volving the grow­ing use of rail cars to ship crude oil have left reg­u­lat­ors scram­bling to get a handle on safety risks.

The stakes came in­to sharp fo­cus last week when the in­de­pend­ent Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board warned of pos­sible “ma­jor loss of life” from oil-by-rail ac­ci­dents as the volume of ship­ments soars.

Amid cri­ti­cism that the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment is mov­ing too slowly to boost safety, let’s see if Obama tackles a top­ic that’s get­ting in­creas­ing at­ten­tion along­side the U.S. oil pro­duc­tion boom.

The re­cent spill of a coal-pro­cessing chem­ic­al in­to a West Vir­gin­ia river, which left hun­dreds of thou­sands of people un­able to use their tap wa­ter for days, has put a sim­il­ar spot­light on chem­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies.

Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Box­er, D-Cal­if., wants to know what steps reg­u­lat­ors will take us­ing their ex­ist­ing powers to toughen over­sight.

If Obama’s speech goes heavy on policy de­tails, these could be among the top­ics he ad­dresses.

Will the White House drop hints on oil and gas ex­ports?

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from oil com­pan­ies and busi­ness groups, in­clud­ing the power­ful U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, to re­lax the dec­ades-old ban on ex­port­ing crude oil.

So far the White House and Com­merce De­part­ment haven’t tipped their hand.

The U.S. Cham­ber and a prom­in­ent Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an say Obama can re­lax the ban un­der his ex­ist­ing au­thor­it­ies, even as ad­voc­ates eye a more sweep­ing le­gis­lat­ive change that’s un­likely any­time soon in the grid­locked Con­gress.

From the left, the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, in a policy wish list is­sued ahead of the speech, said Obama should “pub­licly op­pose” calls for al­low­ing crude-oil ex­ports.

The speech also ar­rives as in­dustry groups are press­ing for faster ap­prov­al of nat­ur­al-gas ex­port li­censes by the En­ergy De­part­ment, which last year gave the green light to sev­er­al plans. A shout-out on gas ex­ports from Obama could sig­nal wheth­er more are in the off­ing.

Will Obama go it alone on con­ser­va­tion?

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists and a num­ber of Demo­crats hope so at a time when bills to cre­ate ma­jor new wil­der­ness pro­tec­tions are un­likely to clear Con­gress.

Ad­voc­ates hope Obama will use his time left to more ag­gress­ively wield his ex­ec­ut­ive power to de­clare new na­tion­al monu­ments un­der a cen­tury-old law called the An­tiquit­ies Act.

“Con­ser­va­tion and his­tor­ic pre­ser­va­tion ini­ti­at­ives with broad pub­lic sup­port should not have to be side­lined or stalled be­cause of polit­ic­al para­lys­is,” states a let­ter to the In­teri­or De­part­ment last week from more than 100 House Demo­crats.

Does Obama have any­thing left in his bag of tricks on cli­mate change?

The pres­id­ent talked a lot about cli­mate change in his second In­aug­ur­al Ad­dress and State of the Uni­on speech last year, and then laid out his second-term cli­mate policy plan last June.

This year, he’ll likely tout his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on cli­mate change and en­ergy at a time when ma­jor le­gis­la­tion is dead. But are any new pro­pos­als in the off­ing?

We’ll see. In the mean­time, cli­mate ad­voc­ates are try­ing to cre­ate as much polit­ic­al space as pos­sible for Obama’s reg­u­la­tions.

As the midterm elec­tion ap­proaches, Obama could use the speech to try to gain ground in the mes­saging wars over his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, es­pe­cially be­cause a center­piece of the second-term plan — car­bon-emis­sions rules for power plants — is fa­cing fresh at­tacks on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“We hope and ex­pect he’ll talk about the dra­mat­ic growth in clean en­ergy, and we hope he will echo what he said in his [June] cli­mate speech, that cli­mate change is both a mor­al chal­lenge and an op­por­tun­ity, and we can’t drill our way out of the prob­lem,” said Si­erra Club Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Brune.

Amy Harder con­trib­uted

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