Energy Fact Check, Analysis: State of the Union 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union. | Photo: Charles Dharapak/AFP/Getty Images

Though Obama's 2013 State of the Union included the most extensive mention of climate change of any SOTU in history, the speech's energy and climate section was by no means its most moving portion. There were a few mentions of old Democratic talking points on increasing solar and wind capacity and engaging in research and development. In fact, the President only covered new ground on renewables when talking about one of the least-sexy facets of the overall issue: energy conservation.

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Here's the transcript of the relevant portion of the speech, provided to ReWire by the White House, with ReWire's comments interspersed:

And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.

After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar -- with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it.

We've seen the "twice as far on a gallon of gas" claim before: it's a reference to the Obama administration's long-overdue increase in corporate average fuel economy standards. It's not quite an accurate claim. Doubling output of renewables such as solar and wind? We've heard that line before too, and this version is mostly accurate.

Producing more oil at home than in the last 15 years is true as well, but it's hard to see how it's an answer to climate change. Nor is the accomplishment Obama listed next:

We produce more natural gas than ever before -- and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

That increase in natural gas has been lauded as an alternative to coal, and that seemed to be the sense in which Obama mentioned it. Sadly, it looks as though natural gas may have no climate advantage over coal.

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods -- all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Those executive actions include directing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases, most likely.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We've begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let's generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year -- so let's drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That's why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

That same natural gas boom has actually hindered the spread of solar and wind, to some degree. Gas prices are at record lows, and that has helped gas-fired power plants undercut the solar and wind industry.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together.

It was nice to see at least some acknowledgment that much of our energy development takes place on public lands, though as one watcher on Twitter put it:

So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let's take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we've put up with for far too long.

According to supplementary material provided by the White House, that Energy Security Trust will "support research into a range of cost-effective technologies -- like advanced vehicles that run on electricity, homegrown biofuels, and vehicles that run on domestically-produced natural gas." It will be interesting to track that Trust's progress over the next few months. Will funding that Trust become yet more impetus for public lands energy development?

That supplementary document also notes that President Obama has asked Congress to make permanent the Energy Production Tax Credits for wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The last bit of the climate and energy section of the speech itself was likely the most surprising:

I'm also issuing a new goal for America: let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Estimates vary of the amount of energy we might feasibly conserve in the U.S., ranging as high as a third, using only currently available technology. Everything from energy recapture to more efficient appliances to scrapping old-style incandescent lightbulbs is there for us to take advantage of, and right now. Conservation has long been a topic to avoid for Presidents, ever since the image of Jimmy Carter fireside in a cardigan flitted past our television screens. And yet it's one of the most effective ways of cutting our climate impact. From that supporting document:

These awards will support state governments that implement effective policies that increase energy efficiency and help decrease waste. Not only will increased efficiency save consumers money, the resulting reforms will drive investments that enhance manufacturing competitiveness, improve grid resiliency, and cut carbon pollution.

Sounds good.

In the official Republican responses to the SOTU, Marco Rubio mentioned opening up more public lands to fossil fuel extraction after the obligatory slam at Solyndra. That was his sole mention of energy policy of any kind. And Rand Paul, in his Tea Party SOTU rebuttal, said exactly two words that could be construed as energy policy, by adding "gas pump" in a discussion of places where prices have gone up. Though it's not surprising the Tea Party statement didn't mention Climate Change in much detail.

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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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Argh. Lip service to energy efficiency since it's his own FHFA economy-sucking-vampire De Marco who is preventing PACE loans from being widely available for people who want to improve the efficiency of their homes and install rooftop solar. Get us PACE loans (and, duh, generous feed in tariffs for excess power produced by rooftop PV up to 100kW) and energy use will drop in half and clean, non-deadly waterless solar power will skyrocket. No need for the stupid PTC, which just encourages Big Energy to kill wilderness for money...