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 month.
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 his ideas.
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 carbon emissions.
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 international border.
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 in general.
"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 XL pipeline."
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 legacy.
Dow Jones Newswires
(Darrell Delamaide is a political columnist for MarketWatch in Washington.)