President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night was a mixed bag for environmental advocates.
Energy and climate got significant attention from the president. He began speaking about energy policy a quarter of the way into the hour-long speech, devoting about 500 of the speech's 6,700 words to the topic.
However, many environmentalists were unhappy that Obama continued to champion natural gas as part of what he called his "all-of-the-above energy strategy," referring to it as a "bridge fuel" to a lower carbon future. Though he qualified his enthusiasm for domestic gas drilling by qualifying it with "if extracted safely," Obama did not acknowledge the well-documented environmental health problems faced by communities where drilling is underway, including air and water pollution.
“While the President touted natural gas, we shouldn't be committing ourselves to a future fueled by gas," said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit. "The President is right that we must protect air and water and stop the methane pollution coming from the gas sector now. But we should not be locking ourselves into fossil fuel dependence that doesn't pass the President's own climate test."
Michael Brune of the Sierra Club had a similar reaction. "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," he said. "We can't effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time."
On a more positive note for environmentalists, Obama called for ending tax breaks to the fossil-fuel industry and investing more in solar and other "fuels of the future," as he called them.
During the energy section of his address, the president became especially animated when talking about climate change. Here's what he said:
Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But we 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.
In the enhanced White House broadcast of the speech, the president's remarks about the reality of climate change were accompanied by the image above, noting that "135 members of Congress have dismissed or denied the science behind climate change." Other recent tallies have put that number even higher, at about 160, including 90 percent of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.
Obama's statement on climate and the urgency of action got cheers and a standing ovation from many attending the speech inside the House chamber as well as praise from environmentalists.
“President Obama sent a clear signal that action to address the climate crisis won’t be held hostage by the climate change deniers running the House of Representatives," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.