State of the Union Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Jan. 28 stood firmly behind his plan to set carbon limits for power plants and other steps to address climate change, adding that “the debate is settled” over whether human activity is warming the planet.

While Obama said the U.S. has cut its total greenhouse gas emissions significantly—“more than any other nation on Earth,” the president said—he warned that “we have to act with more urgency” to address increased flooding of coastal areas and other climate impacts.

In his speech to Congress, the president touted several climate-related efforts that do not require congressional approval, including reducing greenhouse gases emitted from trucks, largely through more stringent fuel efficiency standards.

He also pushed for new incentives for medium and heavy-duty trucks that run on natural gas and called on the House and Senate to extend tax breaks for some still-struggling alternative fuels, such as cellulosic biofuel.Tax breaks for cellulosic biofuels expired Dec. 31.

Obama’s call for urgent climate action ensured the issue did not go ignored in his 2014 State of the Union speech a year after he warned in his 2013 address that he would act alone, using existing executive branch authority, given congressional inaction.

During the past year, Obama has fulfilled much of that pledge, setting relatively firm timetables that would have the Environmental Protection Agency finalize carbon dioxide limits for new and existing power plants before the end of his second term.

He also unveiled a broad climate action plan in June 2013 that called for other actions, from shifting U.S. financing away from overseas coal-fired power plants to clean energy projects to more coordination with local authorities in adapting to rising sea level and other climate impacts.

One climate-related issue that went unmentioned in the president’s State of the Union address was the Keystone XL pipeline, which would link production of Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries. Environmental groups have urged Obama to reject the Keystone project, arguing that it would only worsen global climate change, but Republicans have pushed him to approve it to add jobs and bolster the U.S. economy.

Call for ‘Fuel Neutral’ Approaches.

Obama also used his State of the Union address to call for “fuel neutral” incentives for vehicles that rely on alternative fuels—from hydrogen to natural gas to plug-in hybrids—saying vehicle manufacturers should have the flexibility to decide which technologies are best-suited for different markets and communities.

The president also touted the U.S. solar industry, saying the nation has become a global leader in such technologies. He reiterated his calls for eliminating the roughly $4 billion a year in tax breaks provided to the fossil fuel industry, adding that a “smarter tax policy” would put an end to giving tax breaks to “fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

He also pushed Congress to advance his proposal for a new Energy Security Trust Fund, which he outlined in his February 2013 address to Congress. Its funding would come from the revenue collected from the oil and gas produced from offshore sites and federal lands.

That funding in turn would be used to bolster research and development of vehicles that run on biofuels, hydrogen, and other alternative fuels, Obama said. But that proposal, as well as his calls for ending fossil fuel subsidies, would all require congressional action.

Obama also pressed for new approaches to encourage more production of already booming natural gas supplies in a way that addresses environmental concerns. One approach—the creation of new Sustainable Shale Gas Growth Zones—would offer federal technical assistance to states and local governments while encouraging better regional planning of natural gas production.

Obama said increased production of natural gas “if extracted safely” would act as a “bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” But he also said he would use his executive branch authority to provide more protection of “pristine” federal lands, a nod to calls for more conservation efforts in the second term of his presidency.


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