By DARRELL DELAMAIDE
WASHINGTON -- In his State of
the Union speech this week, President Barack Obama once again
made a strong statement about climate change, affirming the
importance he had attached to it in his inaugural address last
But his mixed message on energy suggested his commitment to
reducing greenhouse gas emissions is something less than
what's needed and that his bold declarations on climate change
will be followed by the vacillation and temporizing that have
characterized much of his presidency in other key areas, such
as financial regulation, job creation and housing relief.
His follow through, or lack of it, on this critical issue
and the others could well determine whether he goes down in
history as the transformational leader he yearns to be or as a
smart and well-intentioned president like Jimmy Carter who
lacked the backbone and political skills to carry through on
In the State of the Union, Obama forthrightly tied
increasingly aberrant weather to climate change. "We can choose
to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought
in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen
were all just a freak coincidence," he said. "Or we can choose
to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act
before it's too late."
But his call to action on climate change was bracketed by
bragging about increased natural-gas production through
hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method that environmentalists oppose because it
releases vast amounts of the harmful greenhouse gas methane and
does other damage to the environment.
"The natural-gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater
energy independence," Obama boasts, as if none of this was an
issue. "That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape
and speeding up new oil and gas permits."
Even though, as Obama notes, natural gas is cleaner energy than
coal or oil, recovering it through fracking contributes
significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and more than offsets
the benefits in carbon reduction.
Obama asked Congress to enact a "market-based solution" to
limit emissions -- think carbon tax or cap-and-trade -- and
pledged executive action in the absence of such legislation.
Ironically, climate change is one area where the president can
take significant action without Congress, but the early signs
are not good.
Rather than begin building a high-powered environmental team for his second
term, for instance, Obama picked an obscure private-sector
chief executive, Sally Jewell of Recreational Equipment Inc.,
to be Interior secretary, passing over a proven political
talent in former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Along with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency,
Interior is a government agency that has oversight of much of
the nation's energy resources and can play a role in
climate-change policy. If Obama's picks for DOE and
EPA are equally weak, it will not bode well for meaningful
action on climate change.
More worrisome is that the administration seems to be
drifting toward approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring
Canada's tar sands oil to US refineries on the Gulf Coast. Not
only is the tar sands product some of the heaviest and dirtiest
oil available, the process of extraction itself entails massive
The newly installed Secretary of State, John Kerry, met last
week with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and said he
would have a decision on Keystone in the "near term." The State
Department has jurisdiction because the pipeline crosses an
Remarks made this week to the Canadian Press news agency by
the US ambassador in Ottawa, David Jacobson, suggested that
Washington may be using the pipeline approval as a carrot to
get Canada to work harder on limiting greenhouse gas emissions
"We all need to do as much as we can. And that is true in
your country and in mine," Jacobson said with regard to Obama's
statements on climate change.
But a quid pro quo
like this plays into the hands of the oil and gas industry,
which has invested billions in the Alberta tar sands. After
all, no extra action on emissions would be necessary if the
US nixes the pipeline project, dealing what could be a
death blow to the tar sands operation.
As energy security expert Michael Klare spelled it out in an
article in The Nation this week: "Presidential decisions often
turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every
now and then what a president decides actually determines how
the world turns," he wrote. "Such is the case with the Keystone
The pipeline decision, he added, "could determine the fate
of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future
well-being of the planet."
Obama, in short, appears poised to make climate change part
of his chimerical quest for compromise. But by delaying action
on climate change for so long, the US has already used up any
room for compromise, and then some.
If Obama does in fact cave on the pipeline project, as now seems likely, and
continues to ignore the issues posed by fracking, history may
have a harsh verdict for a president who temporized on a
critical issue that he has declared an important part of his
Dow Jones Newswires
(Darrell Delamaide is a political columnist for
MarketWatch in Washington.)