Obama’s Green Bargain

Last year, around this time, the U.S. president was extolling the virtues of solar power. Now, he's talking about coal and nuclear plants. What happened?

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

One year ago, Barack Obama came into office promising a "green jobs" revolution. In a coup for environmentalists, the new U.S. president laid out a vision for weaning the United States off fossil fuels and ushering in a cleaner, more prosperous future. "We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," he said to a February joint session of Congress. "We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea." He vowed to combat pollution, announced a massive investment in ecofriendly technologies, and asked Congress to send him a bill to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But on Wednesday night, during Obama’s State of the Union address, environmentalists cringed. Instead of touting, say, solar panels and wind turbines, Obama spoke about nuclear power, oil, gas, coal, and biofuels — all of which have significant environmental drawbacks. He barely mentioned renewable energy sources. The future, he said, in effect, would rely on many of the filthy energy sources of the past.

Some of Obama’s environmental supporters issued statements praising the mere inclusion of climate and energy in the speech. But many were openly critical of the few, not-so-new, and not-so-clean types of energy he chose to support. For instance, Friends of the Earth, a global green advocacy group, called it a "kick in the gut to environmentalists."

What changed Obama’s tune so dramatically? In short, political reality caught up with him. A year ago, Obama — and the world — believed Congress would pass a single, strong cap-and-trade bill. Now, it seems that won’t happen. Thus, on Wednesday, Obama was speaking not to his core base of support for climate legislation, but to the few Republicans and several Democrats to whom he’ll need to make concessions in what the White House has called the "Grand Bargain."

In his speech, Obama hinted at what this deal might entail. Creating new clean energy jobs, he said, "means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." It also means "making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development," and investing in biofuels and "clean coal" technologies. His statement on a comprehensive energy and climate bill — shorthand for legislation that includes a cap on carbon dioxide emissions — came almost as an afterthought to the energy components.

For the past few months, several centrist Democrats have lobbied against putting forward a bill that caps carbon at all. These senators, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, favor instead a bipartisan energy bill (which Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski helped write) that would open more areas to oil and gas drilling, expand investments in nuclear power, and put in place a modest renewable electricity standard, without capping carbon. These senators’ protests have only grown louder since Republican Scott Brown won Democrat Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

So far there is only one Republican publicly backing climate and energy efforts: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He is working with powerful senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to draft legislation, though they have yet to disclose any specifics. But Graham has made it clear that he intends to push for a bill that includes major incentives for nuclear energy, expanded offshore drilling, and advanced coal technologies, which he thinks might bring along more Republicans. "What does offshore drilling do for you in terms of votes? I’ve got a pretty good idea it helps," Graham told reporters on Wednesday. "If we can make the energy piece attractive enough for Republicans, there’s going to be more than a handful that would agree to emissions controls."

Graham, an ardent supporter of nuclear energy and offshore drilling, isn’t the only one who sees trading investment in these environmentally unfriendly measures for a vote for capping carbon as the only way forward. Some of the more mainstream environmental groups, too, seem to be warming to the idea that if they want something done on climate, they’re going to have to swallow less-than-ideal energy components.

"The Senate has a unique opportunity here for the grand bargain on energy that has eluded it to date," says Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation. By marrying efforts to cap pollution with expanded domestic energy initiatives, "measures that quite frankly the environmental groups won’t be as happy with," they might actually get them passed.

Although, reading Obama’s addresses to Congress from a year ago and this week, one might think Obama had flip-flopped on energy entirely, the truth is that the White House has had this shift in mind for months. Last May, for instance, a senior administration official floated the idea of linking cap and trade to "serious" and "short-term" increases in domestic oil production in an interview with the New Yorker.

Plus, the Obama administration has always been decidedly pro-nuclear — a contentious energy solution among environmentalists, given that it produces no carbon emissions, but is costly and resource-intensive and creates radioactive waste. The Department of Energy has been speeding up and streamlining a loan-guarantee program for nuclear energy over the course of the past year.

And the "Grand Bargain" bill would arguably be better than nothing. For one, it would call Republicans’ bluff on energy. Ever since the first climate legislation in 2003, every time a cap-and-trade measure was introduced, Republicans would revive a so-called plan that consists mostly of expanding the use of fossil fuels, with a few nods to renewables. Democrats would counter by saying their bills were also all-inclusive. Now, the Democrats’ probable legislation really is that; the bill that seems likely to emerge in the Senate this year is much more fossil-fuel friendly than past ones.

It’s not entirely clear, though, whether there are many votes to mine on the Republican side. "My impression is that right now Mitch McConnell’s strategy is to oppose everything," says Dan Lashof, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the Senate minority leader. But Republicans who seem like potential votes for a bill — Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and John McCain of Arizona among them — have supported cap-and-trade bills in the past without the major handout to fossil-fuel interests.

The "Grand Bargain" is a major gamble, as it could mean swallowing a lot of bad energy policy in return for few votes, while at the same time alienating the relatively small base of devoted supporters Obama has on this issue. It certainly will not please the United States’ international partners, many of whom have already committed to much stronger carbon-capping and clean-energy measures. But it might be the only way forward.

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