The Limits and Missed Opportunities of Obama’s Energy Legacy

Professor Chris Williams and DeSmogBlog’s Steve Horne challenge the grandiose claims made by Obama in the State of the Union address


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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

As expected, President Obama made climate change one of the main topics in his State of the Union speech. He took his usual stabs at climate change deniers in the Republican party, and he further cemented his legacy as a clean energy president. Let’s have a look.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Seven years ago we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal in jobs that pay better than average.

PERIES: Joining us now to discuss the State of the Union is Chris Williams. He’s a professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute. He’s the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. We are also joined by Steve Horn. He’s coming in from Indianapolis. And Steve Horn, as you know, is a research fellow at DeSmogBlog, and writes in the Guardian, the Nation, and Truthout. He’s also a regular contributor here at the Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us, both of you.


STEVE HORN: Thanks for having us.

PERIES: So President Obama obviously claimed that seven years ago he made great investments in the clean energy program. He wants to go down in history as such. So let me go to you first, Chris. Will he hold up?

WILLIAMS: I would say absolutely not. He made far bigger investments in continuing with the fossil fuel economy, and the evidence of that is in extremely low oil and gas prices that is on target to put the United States as the biggest producer of oil, outpacing Saudi Arabia by 2020. So in addition to that he’s been instrumental in repealing the 40-year-old ban on exporting oil, because there’s so much of it in the United States now they want to export it.

So he also said that the car industry is more profitable now than it’s ever been in that speech. And so surely we should be moving to a different mode of transportation than cars based on fossil fuels if we’re really going to move to a clean energy future. So I think there’s still a, as ever, with Obama a giant gap between rhetoric and reality.

PERIES: And Steve, President Obama took a great deal of credit for leading 200-some nations in Paris to a climate agreement. Yet on his return we did an interview with you about his opposite effect in terms of his domestic work in leading the, the environmental cause and the, and the, you know, reducing emissions in the country. Give me your take on the speech.

HORNE: Yeah. It’s, it was funny to watch him talk this way, just weeks after what happened at home, you know, during and after Paris in December in that first of all, he signed a bill into law, the Highway Bill provision that expedites pipeline permiting for oil and gas pipelines and other related infrastructure in the United States. Of course, the oil export ban was lifted. And this month, the first liquefied natural gas tanker, LNG tanker, will set sail from the Gulf coast, owned by Cheniere. The tanker itself isn’t owned by Cheniere, but the LNG itself is owned by Cheniere, which is a very politically connected company that worked very hard to make this happen. One of the lobbyists was the former U.S. Department of Energy, head of the U.S. Department of Energy, Spencer Abraham in the Bush administration.

So we’re really seeing the United States’ transformation into an export economy for fossil fuels. Coal is already being exported in record amounts, so now it’s oil and gas has moved into that. And so that’s the reality of what’s happening here in the United States. And so we have to see, you know, we can look at when–this speech took place just weeks before the Iowa caucus is about to take place, in which the president of an incumbent party, the Democratic party, is trying to get people excited to go vote for the Democratic party beginning in February, whether it’s for Bernie Sanders or whether it’s for Hillary Clinton. And of course you’ll most likely get behind Hillary Clinton if she becomes the candidate, given that she was the secretary of state.

And there’s of course the entire reality of everything that happened under the, it’s a discussion maybe for another day, but just what the State Department did on energy under the Obama administration over these past seven years, especially. But not only under Hillary Clinton. And so as Chris said, there’s definitely the soaring rhetoric that we saw dating back to when he was running for office before 2008. And I think he was trying to channel that again, the whole hope and change notion. And then there’s the reality of the policy. And, and politicians in general are good at, at talking about things in certain vague ways as a way to masquerade actual policy platforms.

PERIES: Now, this question is to the two of you. The president made lots of mention of special interests in his State of the Union last night, and he especially referenced undue influence it has on politics. How much have the special interests of fossil fuel industry been influencing Obama’s policies, and his decisions during his reign? I’ll go to you, Chris.

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, it’s interesting that George W. Bush, he was called the, his cabinet was basically the oil cabinet, right, because there were so many bona fide connections within the cabinet itself to the oil industry, that everybody was totally unsurprised when there was no, no let up in the lavishing of subsidies, and so on, into that sector. But that hasn’t changed under Obama, regardless of who the personnel are that he’s got in his cabinet. The idea that the oil lobby has been frozen out, actually, it’s incredibly profitable and extracting more oil than ever. That’s why, actually, they run into problems now, because there’s so much oil and gas, so much fracking all over the country that they now have to export it. And the price is dropping, which is now leading to job layoffs.

So he has been one of the friendliest, I would say, to the fossil fuel industry, rivaling the George W. Bush presidency in many ways with regard to energy production. So I don’t see that there’s been really any shift in terms of that, or you could argue many other policies. In fact, many other policies, when you think about foreign policy, when you think about the deportations, when you think about the fact that he never closed Guantanamo, and many other things domestic and foreign, then it’s easier to argue that there’s been a continuation of George W. Bush’s policy and agenda than there has been any radical or even minor change. So the idea that this has been some transformational presidency is totally false.

And you know, you have to, I think you have to ask the question, is it worse to be a climate denier, or is it worse to know that there’s a huge problem with the climate and then not act to do something serious about it.

PERIES: That’s a good point, Chris. Steve, what do you think of what Chris just said?

HORNE: Well, I’ll just continue what Chris said, talking about the expansion of energy production under the Obama administration, really looking at the big picture. Of course, there’s been an expansion of production. The Alberta tar sands, and several pipelines that have been approved secretly by the Obama administration, especially ones owned by Enbridge, but also the southern leg of the Keystone XL, which we’ve talked about several times on the Real News Network.

But also, one of the things that’s really not discussed as often but is huge in terms of how the big banks think about energy in North America and how Wall Street’s thinking about energy in North America is the fact that under the Obama administration, looking south of the border in Mexico, we’ve seen his State Department under Hillary Clinton looking at the emails that came, have come out, in particular looking at some WikiLeaks cables. The State Department was working hard on energy privatization in Mexico, and ensuring that other companies besides Pemex can operate down in Mexico.

So right now, we are seeing a, you know, a slow but quickly hastening opening up of Mexico to international oil and gas companies. We’re seeing pipeline deals being signed with Mexico. And we’re seeing what’s called unitization of the entire North American continent, of the oil and gas industry. So Canada, U.S., and Mexico are treated as one pool by investors, policies are created, continuation of NAFTA, so that tariffs and other things of that sort are not areas for profits. And that has happened under the Obama administration. Mexico, it’s something that will see the impacts of that in future administrations, but we can pin the blame, if there are negative impacts towards ecology and that sort of thing, by and large on first the Bush administration for planting some of the seeds. But the Obama administration actually oversaw the deal and the constitutional amendments being signed down in Mexico.

And so that’s something that’s not discussed very often, and of course it didn’t come up in his speech. But that is, you know, his State Department pushed that hard, his Department of Commerce was pushing that hard. And the International Trade Administration, et cetera. These are the realities of policies that the Obama administration is overseeing.

PERIES: All right. Can we give him any credit? For example, the Obama and the EPA guidelines of getting power plant emissions under control. Is that something you think was a worthwhile decision, and it will have a long-term effect? Let me go to you, Chris.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it’s obviously better than nothing. And the problem is that it’s the least that could have happened. And when you think that he came into power in 2008 with a supermajority, when he could have done anything, pretty much, that you wanted to do, and he squandered all of that political capital and never really pushed for the kind of change that could have made a difference.

And now here we are seven years later, far more emissions, far more environmental pollution, and a far worse situation in many regards than–and now we’re having these tiny little changes made that we’re supposed to feel good about. I, I think that actually if we weren’t up against the laws of physics and thermodynamics, and we had more time available, then you could say well, that’s, that’s progress. But it’s no progress if your house is burning down and you’re pouring more gasoline, quite literally in this case, onto it at the same time as you’re standing outside kind of worried about whether your house is going to be around for much longer.

So no, I don’t think that that’s in any way sufficient. There’s more oil and gas production than the United States has been producing for the last couple of decades. And so yes, some of it is going to be a little bit less polluting, and obviously that’s a good thing. But for example, a National Academy of Sciences study from 2010, The Real Cost of Energy, estimated that healthcare costs, not just for workers but in general to Americans, and infrastructure, was about $62 billion from the coal industry. If you pensioned off every single miner, coal miner in the United States, about 137,000 miners, people. Full pension plan of $50,000 a year, tax-free, then that’s about $6.8 billion. In other words, you could spend 10 percent of the healthcare costs giving every–and spend that money retraining miners. Because the idea that corporations, I mean, and after the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch disaster and so on, the idea that corporations, or the Democratic party, could care less about ordinary people is insulting, because of the, what they actually do.

But there’s a statistic that we get from the National Academy of Sciences that we could spend 90 percent less money, pension off all the, all of the coal miners, stop coal production, and use that money to retrain miners to good union jobs, re-energize those communities, and at the same time stop everybody else breathing in all the toxins aside from carbon dioxide that are a result of coal production. And instead, coal production where it’s now being expanded in the United States, as Steve mentioned, is massively expanding into the Pacific. So people say, well, China’s polluting. Some of that is with U.S. coal. And that’s why they want to build more coal export terminals on the West Coast, that people are protesting and trying to shut down.

So it’s, it’s completely contradictory mixed messages, and far too little far too late.

PERIES: And Steve, let me give you the last word here. Obama hinted that he will cut subsidies to the oil and gas industry this year, something that even Donald Trump is thinking is a good idea in his campaign. Do you think he will follow through?

HORNE: That is hard to say, because politicians talk a lot about these sweetheart deals that the oil and gas industry get, and yet we’ve seen no action taken on that. And so maybe, maybe he will put something forward. Maybe someone in the Democratic party will introduce some sort of bill. But right now they’re, the House is owned by the GOP, and it’s not looking like anything could get through the United States House of Representatives anyway. So at [best] right now would be something that is put forward as a PR maneuver, but in terms of the, the actual possibility of that legislation going through, it’s pretty much known at the moment.

So that is, of course–I mean, this is a whole other thing where the Democratic party does this often, where when they don’t have power they introduce bills that would create meaningful reforms, but you know, they do it when there’s no chance of passing. We see this often. So I could see it happening this year, but it doesn’t really mean much in the big scheme of things.

PERIES: All right. Chris, Steve, thank you so much for joining us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HORNE: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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