News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

SOTU: A Few Interesting Energy Moments and What They Could Mean

Screenshot of the White House's live feed of tonight's State of the Union

The pundit chatter over the next few days will likely center on other topics President Obama covered in his 2014 State of The Union Address. Raising the minimum wage, moving on from the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, and foreign policy issues like Iran and military strategy are already dominating the conversation.

But there were a couple of notable mentions of energy policy in the the President's speech that actually represent a departure of sorts from past policies, at least if you read between the lines.

And just as notable, in the energy realm, were the things that went unmentioned.

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Among the energy issues unmentioned in the Address were two that until now, were favorite Obama administration talking points. There was no mention -- not a single word -- of the White House's years-long push to approve and build renewable energy capacity on public lands. And while the President did claim that his "All Of The Above" energy policy "is working" to make the nation more energy independent, "clean coal" went completely unmentioned. That's a remarkable omission, given that the main impetus for calling the administration's approach an "all of the above" policy was as a cover for so-called "clean coal."

Instead, something the President did say could -- and will -- be read as a direct attack on the coal industry:

[W]e have to act with more urgency -- because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air. The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

That's a reference to the months-long political battle over the Obama administration's attempt to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate greenhouse gas emissions from electrical power plants, the core tenet of the climate plan the White House unveiled in June of last year. Electrical power plants are the single largest source of American greenhouse gas emissions, and coal plants are generally considered to emit more greenhouse gases per kilowatt-hour of energy produced than any other form of electrical generation. Which means the EPA's regulations will hit coal plants the hardest.

In fact, the President signaled that he may well be picking a side in which sectors of the fossil fuel industry will survive into the next few decades, and his choice won't make environmental activists happy. America's future depends on using natural gas as a "bridge fuel," said the President, and he suggested that the oil industry had better watch its back almost as much as their coal colleagues:

[T]oday, America is closer to energy independence than we've been in decades. One of the reasons why is natural gas -- if extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas. I'll cut red tape to help states get those factories built, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.

It's the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that has driven the dramatic expansion in natural gas production, and this wasn't lost on environmentalists watching the speech. Take, for instance, a near-immediate reply by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune to the President's support of natural gas:

Make no mistake -- natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an "all of the above" energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy. We can't effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time.

In any event, the specific mention of a federal push for natural gas-powered vehicles is notable, and bears watching over the next few months.

But if the President seems to have put oil companies on notice that he intends to take away a few percent of their transportation fuel business, he did omit one other topic from his speech that might have mollified them. The Address's complete lack of mention of the controversial Keystone pipeline isn't sitting well with climate-oriented environmentalists, and complaints aren't hard to find on Twitter.

As for big renewables energy development on public lands going unmentioned, here's what the President said instead:

My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities. And while we're at it, I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.

It's not just oil and natural gas production that's booming; we're becoming a global leader in solar, too. Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can't be outsourced. Let's continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don't need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.

Let's look at the second paragraph first: the sole mention of renewable energy in State of The Union 2014, and it's cheerleading for rooftop solar, with a hint that the White House is going to increase incentives. That could be a signal that the White House is working to do things like extending the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which essentially cuts the cost of installing rooftop solar by 30 percent. That tax credit is set to expire in three years, at the end of December 2016 -- and at the end of Obama's term of office. His mention of transferring subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables in the same breath as his applauding rooftop solar may mean extending and expanding the Solar ITC is on the agenda.

But it's the mention of protecting public lands for future generations, stuck in the middle of a discussion of energy policy, that really raised ReWire's eyebrows. It's a cliche that second-term Presidents with their legacy in mind use the power granted them by the federal Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate National Monuments without Congressional approval. As soon as that phrase rolled out of the teleprompter and onto the airwaves, park activists filled Twitter with applause, for example:

The mention especially cheered supporters of the proposed Organ Mountains National Monument in New Mexico, which Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured last week.

But why the mention in the middle of a section on energy development? It may be an artifact of a speechwriter's sense of rhetorical structure. Or it may be delayed recognition of growing public concern over the unprecedented speed at which public lands are being developed for renewable energy development, especially across the southwest.

In California, the signal that the President may fire up his powers under the Antiquities Act may mean progress on the proposed Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow National Monuments, which Senator Dianne Feinstein has been attempting to shepherd through a recalcitrant Congress for several years. Both would occupy land much coveted by wind and solar power developers. As envisioned by Feinstein, Mojave Trails NM would protect almost 1,500 square miles of the Mojave between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Sand to Snow would protect more than 250 square miles in the San Gorgonio Pass area, one of the most heavily developed wind energy sites in the U.S. and a major corridor for potential new transmission lines that desert solar and wind installations would need to carry power to coastal cities.

Suggesting that that one sentence marks a potential shift away from the wholesale development of desert public lands that has been the foundation of Obama's renewable energy policy may be a stretch. But this President's record since his first campaign in 2008 consists of hardly mentioning protecting public lands at all. This one sentence is a remarkable departure from that record. And if President Obama really is thinking about his National Monuments legacy, setting aside a stretch of the California desert the size of Delaware to protect it from energy development wouldn't be a bad move.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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