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If the President Wants Cleaner, Safer Gas and Oil, Give Consumers Knowledge and Power

Fracking Pond

It was a relief to hear more than a passing reference to climate change in President Obama’s State of the Union Speech, including promises of more support for wind and solar power. But the oil industry heard nothing to even cause even a smidgen of concern.

Asking Congress to “get together to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” should have been marked in the transcript as a laugh line.  And the presidential promise to “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits” was an emergency alert for communities under siege from natural gas fracking and states–particularly California–whose dwindling supply of clean water is being sucked away by both oil companies and climate change.

While the president pledged support for “research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water,” technology is only as good as the corporations willing to pay for it as well as put safety above profit. What citizens want is information and a say in the process. Right now they have precious little of either.

So the citizen’s challenge to President Obama and Congress has to be this:

  • We want knowledge and the oil industry demands secrecy about its drilling, its safety procedures, the toxic chemicals it injects into wells and the effects of drilling on land, water and air.
  • We want responsibility and the oil industry wants deniability about chemical and methane seepage (to protect it from liability for the damage it causes, from poisoning our water to killing farm stock after leaks from wastewater ponds like the one pictured above).
  • We want advance information about new drilling and the industry wants no discussion with communities before the drill bits hit the soil; dangerous fracking gets far less advance scrutiny than solar and wind projects.
  • We want the environmental and quality of life effects of drilling measured and balanced before deep new fracking and injection wells go up next door; the industry calls such requests “job killers.

Judy DuganPresident Obama rightly praised the growth of cleaner cars and called for more conservation and greener buildings. He left no wiggle room in his speech for climate-change deniers, not with American coastal communities being submerged by rising seas and ever-more-frequent giant storms like Sandy. Yet that firmness doesn’t track with his praise for clean-burning natural gas. Any clean-air benefit in combustion has to be balanced against the high volumes of methane–which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide–in the gas fracking process.

He praised growing North American energy independence–yet such “independence,” in a global market like oil, will do exactly nothing to reduce U.S. gasoline prices. And the worse cost is the acceptance of filthy tar sands oil from Canada, which pollutes at every stage from extraction to refining.

Everything in politics is a tradeoff, and President Obama has at least put energy conservation and climate change back on the national radar. What we need to see now is a commitment to saving our air, land and water for generations to come, rather than accepting the false “job killer” mantra of industry and its empty promises to put safety over profit.


Posted by Judy Dugan, former research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

POTUS Speak Up

Five Things to Say about Clean Energy in Your Address

It is that time of year again.  This Wednesday, January 27, 2010, the President will glide down the aisle in the House of Representatives, greeted by thunderous applause, and encounter the usually more dignified elected officials in a slightly teen-bopper, Beatles-esque-frenzy, practically climbing over each other to shake his hand.  

He will ascend the rostrum in front of federal government and the nation and proceed to tell us how our country is doing. Within the first five minutes of the speech, President Obama will say the health of our nation is strong – because what else can a President say?  The State of the Union address is largely an exercise in tradition.  So, why then does it matter what he says?

It matters because behind all the ritual rhetoric lies a pretty good indicator of what the president will focus on in the coming months.

Which is also exactly why so many political pundits have been theorizing about the President’s speech for weeks now.  Speculation has reached a fever-pitch with the stunning yet not surprising election of Senator-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) and the equally shocking Supreme Court decision last week, which some have argued, gave corporations the right to basically buy Congressional seats. Every public interest group in Washington is hoping – praying really – that their issue will rise to the level of a “shout out” from the President.  We all desperately want the President to acknowledge (via his SOTU speech) that what we each work on is a top priority.  

You can be certain that is what the community working for clean energy and climate solutions is hoping for – a shout out.  

There have been many predictions in recent days about the death of a climate bill.  Those predictions could be turned on their heads and dispelled with just a few sentences on Wednesday.  In my ideal world, this is what President Obama would say:

1. “Investing in clean energy and climate solutions will generate jobs for Americans.”

President Obama has already hinted he will talk about job creation in his address. That’s no surprise: it is the most urgent priority for American families right now.

One of the best ways to get Americans back to work is to give them the job of building a clean energy economy and rebuilding American infrastructure. As soon as we set limits on global warming pollution, we will unleash billions of dollars in private investment for low-carbon solutions like energy efficient windows and batteries for hybrid cars.

That investment will create jobs–nearly 2 million, according to economists at the University of California.

2. “We are losing jobs to our overseas competitors everyday.”

We are getting the pants beat off us by our international competitors.  According to the Green, Inc. blog over at the NY Times, “At the beginning of 2009, Chinese solar companies supplied 21 percent of the market; by year’s end their stake had more than doubled.” They are winning in the pricing game: “A Chinese module maker with little name recognition in the United States, Yingli, has captured 27 percent of the California market thanks to low pricing, the report said. Suntech, China’s leading module-maker, has a 10 percent share in California.”  We need to get ourselves in gear if we are going to compete.  

3. “Our dependence on foreign oil is unpatriotic.”

I am a mom with an SUV (granted a Honda CRV, but nonetheless, a SUV.) I love my SUV – I can shove kids, tricycles, backpacks, extra clothes, groceries, and even a box for Goodwill in the back and still have room for a family dog.  But I can’t pretend that my choice has no repercussions to our national security.

Every time I fill up, I am lining the pockets of those who hate America.  Almost all of us “soccer moms and dads” in our SUVs are in the same boat.  We need to drive something functional that doesn’t feed terrorism.  I don’t think that means that we need to buy tinier cars (although that may be part of the solution) – I think it means that we must make more efficient, cleaner cars. And the best way to do that is to give Detroit and other automakers the incentives they need to get the job done.

4. “An energy bill alone is not enough.”

This weekend the NYTimes notes in an editorial about climate, “The jobs argument should impress the Senate. Yet many Democrats as well as Republicans seem willing to settle for what would be the third energy bill in five years – loans for nuclear power, mandates for renewable energy, new standards for energy efficiency. These are all useful steps. But the only sure way to unlock the investments required to transform the way the country produces and delivers energy is to put a price on carbon.”

We keep writing checks for clean energy investments but we aren’t getting the most bang for our buck.  If we don’t place a price on pollution, we will only see some of the benefit.  In order to get the most for our money, we need to let the market work – and that means making those who pollute pay for their fair share

5. “Addressing climate change must be more than just a sound bite – it must be a process by which we will commit to get a bill passed this spring.”

Luntz also found that the public overwhelming believes that climate change is occurring – even 66% of Republicans think that global warming is likely happening – so now it is time to stop fighting about it and do something.

If you look on most Senate websites, you will find a statement about how climate change exists and we should do something about it.  We need to turn that lip service into action.  

Is the President likely to say all of this?  Maybe not.  But if he even gets half way there, I think we will be able to repeat that great Twain quote when it comes to a climate change bill: “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”