Decoding Obama's Subtle, Revealing Language About the Earth

One of the subtle threads of Obama's two terms has been how he's embraced politically popular energy production while navigating the politically unpopular issue of climate change. Here's how Obama navigated the terrain last night.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

One of the subtle threads of President Obama's two terms in office has been how he's embraced the politically popular energy production while trying to navigate the politically unpopular but critical issue of climate change. During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, here's how Obama navigated the terrain, in his own words.

Obama addressed energy fairly early in his speech. Energy production — generally referring to the extraction of oil and natural gas — is regularly hailed by Republicans as a job-creating mechanism. That's in part because the drilling boom in the Plains states has created a huge number of jobs, and it's in part because it helps bolster the broader Republican case that drilling should be expanded and that addressing climate change should not be the government's first priority. Obama led off his speech by talking about the need to bolster the economy, so it naturally followed that he'd quickly get into a discussion of energy production.

All quotes below are from Obama's prepared remarks, with emphasis added.

Now, one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy. The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today, America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades.

Obama's mantra on energy has long been "all of the above," which accomplishes a nice rhetorical trick for him. It means more coal mining and more drilling for oil and gas, to make the right happy, and it means more investment in green energy systems to make the left happy. In the quieter moments when he doesn't have a large audience, Obama's worked with the EPA to try to shift energy use from the first group to the second. The administration has put a lot of investment from the Department of Energy into green technology and using EPA regulations to try — largely at some future point — to curb the emissions from the former.

"Closer to energy independence" is an intentionally vague term. Politicians of both parties have long argued for the United States to produce all of its own energy, a campaign kickstarted by the oil embargo of the 1970s. As the graph from the White House points out, we're still a long way from achieving that. What Obama is really saying here is that America is producing more and more oil, largely because of the expansion of hydraulic fracturing in those Plains states. (More on that below.) Last year, the United States reached a point where we were producing more oil than we imported. But, The Wall Street Journal notes, that "doesn’t mean energy independence is right around the corner" — one projection puts that point at 2035, if current oil production trends continue.

Which Obama is hoping they don't.

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. 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.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is an extraction process that injects water, mixed with some other chemicals and sand, into shale rock. The pressure breaks the shale, releasing gas and oil that is then pumped back out. (The sand keeps the cracks open to allow the flow.) The border of North Dakota and Montana sits above a huge shale formation called the Bakken; it's why North Dakota is the fastest-growing state in the country. This is why Republicans love fracking.

But Obama had to say "if extracted safely." When the water/chemical mixture is pumped back out of the fracking wells, companies often store it underground at high pressure. Those storage sites have been linked to water pollution and earthquakes. There's also a debate over how much of the natural gas that's removed from fracking sites — gas that is mostly methane — escapes into the atmosphere. Methane is 34 times as potent a greenhouse gas as the carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels. While methane burns much more cleanly, if a lot escapes during extraction, that could offset the warming benefits of moving from coal and oil to natural gas. (Studies on how much escapes differ broadly.) But if it doesn't? Even the Sierra Club once considered natural gas to be an effective "bridge fuel," though it no longer does, given greener alternatives.

Converting vehicles from gasoline to compressed natural gas or liquified natural gas, however, would cut down dramatically on emissions and on greenhouse gas production. That's why Obama called for more natural gas filling stations — an infrastructural investment that would bolster private sector investment in the vehicles.

Interestingly, an analysis of Twitter reactions showed that the state that responded the most fervently to this section of the speech was West Virginia. That's in part because residents of the coal-producing state are increasingly worried about the transition away from fossil fuels. But it's also likely because of Obama's mention of clean water — which recently became a critical concern in the state.

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.

This is the part of the speech targeting Obama's Democratic base. The U.S. solar industry continues to grow, though China continues to lap the field in panel installations.

It's that $4 billion comment that's pure red meat, though. Each year, oil companies large and small get a number of tax breaks, including one for manufacturing in the U.S., as though they could move drill sites overseas. Repealing those tax breaks has come up for a vote in Congress multiple times, but has never made it to the president's desk.

And even as we’ve increased energy production, we’ve partnered with businesses, builders, and local communities to reduce the energy we consume. When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months, I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.

One of the most effective ways to reduce energy use is by being more energy efficient. This is a fairly wonky argument to make, but doing things like adding insulation and switching away from incandescent lightbulbs can reduce coal consumption (and greenhouse gases) by reducing the amount of energy we need. Those lightbulbs, by the way, were supposed to be phased out on January 1. The budget deal that recently passed Congress, however, stayed that rule.

Environmentalists often hail Obama's fuel efficiency standard changes — done in partnership with car companies — as one of his administration's key environmental wins. To the point above, it will mean less gasoline is used, and therefore fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less pollution.

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.

The "past eight years" line was interesting because 1) it's true but 2) that number is once again increasing. The decrease in American carbon dioxide pollution was largely a function of both the slowing economy and the depressed price of natural gas, thanks to the fracking boom. The cost of natural gas has increased and the economy is doing better — more businesses with lights on and industrial plants running 24 hours a day — so in 2013, our carbon emissions increased once again.

Buried at the end of his comments on energy, right before his strong comments about the climate, was a casual mention of the most important move Obama's made on the environment: the EPA's proposed standards to reduce the pollution from coal-burning power plants. We dove into this last month, but the upshot is that new coal-burning facilities will need to capture any carbon emitted from the burning process. (Older plants, which are a major source of carbon pollution, will have a new rule issued at some point before Obama leaves office.) This is what West Virginia is worried about, a move away from coal. But it's unequivocally what the climate needs, from every country.

Because, as Obama said, climate change is a fact. And with three years left in his term, Obama's quiet transition from brown energy production to greener fuels is becoming more urgent and more obvious. Even now, he has to talk about the change in very, very vague terms.

Correction: The article originally used the EPA estimate of the warming strength of methane versus carbon dioxide, which is about 20 times. The IPCC now puts it at 34.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.