If Obama's energy and trade policies sound familiar, they should.
- By Jamila TrindleJamila Trindle is a senior reporter who covers finance, economics and business where they intersect with national security and foreign policy. Her beat spans everything from the economic underpinnings of conflict to sanctions, corruption and terror finance. Before coming to Foreign Policy magazine, Jamila reported for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, covering financial regulation and economics. She has also worked as a foreign correspondent in China, Indonesia and Turkey as a freelancer for NPR, Marketplace, The Guardian and others. She moved back to the U.S. to cover the post-crisis economy for PBS in 2009., Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is a senior reporter covering energy for Foreign Policy.
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday lasted for more than an hour and touched on issues ranging from immigration to pre-K childhood education. But when it came to energy and trade, two of the most important issues facing the country, Obama had very little to say.
Obama’s energy and climate proposals, for instance, were largely recycled from previous years and contained virtually nothing that was entirely new.
When he addressed the joint session of Congress last year, Obama promised to start tackling climate change by using executive actions to overhaul the power sector and set strict limits on the amount of carbon emissions from electric plants. This year’s speech, by contrast, offered very few original ideas for how to shift the country toward the cleaner, greener economy he talked about while running for president in 2008.
Obama instead ran through a long list of the steps federal and state governments, as well as the private sector, have taken over the last five years to cut energy prices and greenhouse gas emissions.
Principally, as the president acknowledged, those gains have come from the nation’s ongoing natural gas bonanza, which has made the United States the world’s biggest gas producer and led to cleaner-burning electricity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Obama said he would try to cut red tape to make it even easier for businesses to invest in manufacturing facilities that use gas for feedstock.
Still, Obama left an array of key details unaddressed. He spoke of the need to make sure that gas production is environmentally responsible, but didn’t say what his administration would ultimately do when came to setting standards for natural-gas wells, including potential new limits on methane emissions and stricter rules regulating the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
He called, vaguely, for Congress to renew the tax credits for clean energy sources like solar power that had been in place for years but fallen victim to partisan sniping on Capitol Hill. And he repeated familiar calls to end longstanding tax breaks for oil companies, now worth about $4 billion a year.
Unlike in 2011, though, there were no ambitious calls to generate the majority of U.S. electricity from clean sources of power or put a million electric vehicles on the roads. He reiterated last year’s call to use federal revenues from oil production to fund development of advanced vehicle technologies, but the idea hasn’t gotten any traction in the past and is unlikely to get some now. Obama’s call for new tax credits for biofuels that could one day replace oil will also probably not go anywhere since the biofuels market is already struggling with falling demand for transport fuels and a glut of U.S. oil production.
The president was just as squishy on climate change. He said there was new urgency to combat the issue, but only rehashed measures designed to curb emissions from power plants by setting stricter carbon emissions limits. That push was a centerpiece of last year’s State of the Union address and codified in an executive order last fall, so it — like so much else in the speech — wasn’t a new proposal.
Obama, clearly taking a cautious path politically, also skipped past the fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. While Obama pledged to cut red tape holding up big infrastructure projects, he didn’t mention that the project has already been under review for five years.
Obama’s trade proposals were also largely a mash-up of the already-done and the never-will-be. The president renewed his call for new trade agreements that he said would create large numbers of jobs, but the few lines he devoted to the subject were a far cry from his 2010 goal of doubling exports over five years. U.S. exports aren’t on track to meet that target. Exports have only increased by about a third since that speech and they actually fell from 2012 to 2013. Securing a trade deal that includes fast growing smaller economies could move the U.S. closer to that goal.
With that in mind, Obama called on Congress to agree to give any trade deal an up or down vote by passing "trade promotion authority," which is how past trade deals have avoided getting bogged down with revisions in Congress. Without the green light from Congress, other countries may hesitate to make concessions on the thorny issues that still need to be negotiated.
A bill creating that trade promotion authority was introduced in the Senate earlier this month, but it will face an uphill battle in the House. Michigan Democrat Rep. Sandy Levin, who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is among an array of powerful lawmakers and automobile executives who have pushed for currency controls to be included in the deal. They argue that the agreement should include some mechanism for going after countries that depress their currencies in order to make exports cheaper in the global marketplace. Many of those provisions are aimed at China, which isn’t currently part of the deal, but could join later.
Trade negotiators have been working on two agreements, one with Europe and one with Asian and Latin American countries. Negotiating over the second one, the Pacific trade deal — with Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam — is further along and the administration was pushing to finish it by the end of 2013. That deadline was missed and a new one hasn’t been established, but if it doesn’t happen in the first half of 2014, it could be snagged by mid-term elections, as lawmakers worry that supporting a trade deal will open them up to criticism back home. The upshot is that Obama may get the trade powers he wants just when it would be too difficult for him to actually use them.