The Presidential Energy Narrative

Campaign coverage takes on a green hue

In the last week, President Obama has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, focused his first campaign ad on clean energy, visited the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time, devoted seven minutes to energy in his State of the Union speech, and touted fossil fuels and renewables out west.

It was an environmentally charged stretch for a president setting out for re-election, and the media noticed.

As soon as Obama rejected Keystone, The Washington Post posited that it would do “nothing to delay a debate that could help define the campaign fight between Republicans and Democrats.” The “battle has only just begun,” the paper reported a day later. “The question is how the battle will be waged in the months to come.”

Yes it is, and a variety of outlets have been trying to provide answers.

Since he was in the Senate, environmentalists have criticized Obama for being soft on the oil and gas and coal industries. But he ran for president on a strong energy and environment platform that pleased greens. The failure of cap-and-trade legislation led him to abandon his pledge to address climate change, however, and in the fall, he angered environmentalists when he thwarted the EPA’s plan to tighten smog standards and then offered to open more areas off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

Those offenses haven’t been forgotten, Reuters’ Deborah Zabarenko reported Thursday, but his actions in recent months indicate an effort to change course:

For a Democrat who won the White House with strong green credentials, Obama has kept his environmental policies well below the radar for much of his presidency.

The trip to the EPA, the rejection of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline, the long-delayed roll-out of regulations on mercury pollution and auto fuel efficiency standards suggest this is changing as Obama’s re-election campaign gets into gear.

Most of the sources that Zabarenko quoted suggest that Obama has little to gain by trying to be more pro-business or more pro-fossil fuel than his Republican rivals. Even Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public-opinion polling at the libertarian America Enterprise Institute, which generally opposes environmental regulations, conceded that the strategy could pay off.

“We don’t know how big the environment vote is, but in a close election everything matters, and you certainly want to appeal to environmentalists,” she said.

There are signs that the appeal is working.

The Los Angeles Times highlighted a study in which a mix of fifty Democrat, Republican, and independent swing voters “armed with dial meters” recorded their reactions to the proposals in Obama’s State of the Union address. The Times should have stressed that Democracy Corps, a research firm with strong ties the Democratic Party, performed the study. Nonetheless, the results were interesting. Viewers reacted almost as strongly to Obama’s call for more investment in renewable energy as they did to his mention of Osama bin Laden’s death.

“The passages of the speech that talked about phasing out subsidies for oil companies and competing with China and Germany for new developments in wind power and solar energy did particularly well,” the Times reported.

Obama didn’t exactly shun fossil fuels, however. He rejected Keystone XL on logistical rather than ecological grounds, and after doing so, one of his climate and energy advisers, Heather Zichal, emphasized the administration’s commitment to oil and gas development on the White House blog and in an op-ed for USA Today. David Roberts, a senior writer for the environmental news website Grist, called it “pathetically defensive, pro-fossil fuel messaging” on Twitter.

Yet Roberts cut Obama some slack when he expressed similar support for oil and gas in the State of the Union (see the president’s “blueprint for making the most of America’s energy resources,” released Thursday). He “never expected Obama’s support for fossil fuels to wane,” and saw the remarks about fossil fuels as a setup for even stronger statements about clean energy.

“Greens should be honest with themselves,” Roberts wrote. “The energy issue is a tough nut to crack for a national politician. Contrary to what a lot of folks seem to think, Obama can’t change the political climate or public opinion with the power of his words. No president, including The One, is willing to get out very far ahead of public opinion; presidents react to it more than they shape it.”

Whatever the case, on Thursday, Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were out west trying to win support of the administration’s energy platform, and it was nice to see local news outlets spotlight contradictions in the “all of the above” strategy. At the Albuquerque Journal, John Fleck pointed out that Chu’s appearance at Sandia National Laboratories’ Solar Thermal Facility made for an “ironic photo op.”

Off to one side was a set of concentrating solar dishes developed by Sandia and Stirling Energy Systems. Stirling filed for bankruptcy last fall, however, when it found it couldn’t compete with cheap photovoltaic panels from China and the plummeting price of natural gas. As one of the national labs that helped improve the hydraulic fracturing processes that gave made gas more affordable, Sandia “was part of Stirling’s undoing.”

Indeed, promoting the development of natural gas and the development of renewable sources of electricity are, to a large extent, at odds with each other. The opposition did not go unnoticed in a Las Vegas Sun article about Obama’s speech at a UPS facility in Sin City on Thursday.

The company had received $5.6 million in stimulus funds to purchase a fleet of trucks that can run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), and to construct a publically accessible LNG refueling station that enables LNG vehicles to travel a natural gas-powered “corridor” between the Port of Long Beach, California, and Salt Lake City. Obama wants to promote similar corridors elsewhere in the nation, but his appearance raised questions about the state of the solar power industry. According to the Sun:

That the president would focus so intently on natural gas in a state like Nevada, which may be implementing the fruits of the product but has little of the resource, is a bit out of the ordinary — in the past, when administration officials have come to Nevada to talk energy, the topic is renewables. Nevada’s sun corridor has made the Silver State a national leader in turning golden rays into an energy resource. Natural gas, though clean, isn’t renewable.

But the unorthodox choice of topic may turn out to be wise in terms of political timing. Just hours before the president touched down in Las Vegas Wednesday night, one of the Las Vegas Valley’s best-known solar panel manufacturers laid off two-thirds of its employees, citing the need to do some “retooling.”

There are concerns about Obama’s LNG-vehicle strategy, of course. The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer questioned whether it could really “get us off oil.” Electric vehicles may play a more pivotal role, he observed:

After all, it’s far more efficient to take natural gas, burn it to generate electricity, and power a bunch of plug-in vehicles, than it would be to fuel up cars and trucks with all that natural gas directly. (That’s because the combustion engines in cars and trucks waste more energy than the modern-day combined-cycle gas turbines that produce electricity.)

Plumer also threw some cold water on Obama’s optimistic State-of-the-Union assertion that American oil production is the highest it’s been in eight years. “Technically, that’s true,” he wrote. “But it’s worth taking a longer view. Since 1970, U.S. oil production has actually been in severe decline — and the recent boom is nowhere near enough to reverse it.” (For more on the production plateau and the end of easy oil, see David Biello’s January 25 article in Scientific American.)

In that light, it wasn’t surprising to read that the president’s “donors want more than Keystone.” According in a well-reported piece by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, which quoted a variety of hesitant benefactors:

If Barack Obama thought killing the Keystone XL pipeline would bring a gusher of campaign cash, he’s got another thing coming.

Many green-minded donors who backed the president during his last race in 2008 say they’re thrilled with the White House’s decision to reject the pipeline. But they remain unconvinced that Obama is committed to their issues.

Samuelsohn’s findings jibe with an Environment & Energy Daily report about a David-and-Goliath relationship with industry taking shape as “greens weigh their election-year matchup.” It’s unsure how much Obama can count on the “conservationist cavalry” to ride to his aid, explained Elana Schor:

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) appears to maintain environmentalists’ only super PAC at this point in the election cycle, as well as a tax-exempt 527 group that reported a $195,000 donation in May from Lynde Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune who sits on LCV’s board of directors. The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) maintain political action committees. Many environmental groups are subsidized by wealthy donors.

… Obama’s re-election race, however, is one arena that may lack for green dollars ahead of Election Day. LCV spent nearly $1 million to elect him in 2008, but in an interview, its campaigns director Navin Nayak called the Senate the “top priority” for 2012.

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, told E&E Daily that it “can’t compete with Big Oil in terms of campaign cash…” Indeed, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group with strong ties to the oil and gas industry, recently launched a $6 million ad campaign. The ad attempted to fault Obama for the failure of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million loan guarantee under the government stimulus package only to go belly up last August.

As ABC News’s Jake Tapper explained, “The ad contains claims that are not tethered to facts” and served only to “muddy the waters.” The Obama re-election campaign pushed back with its own ad, “foreshadowing an energy-centric campaign,” according to InsideClimate News. But the president’s State-of-the-Union plea for a clean energy standard and other tax incentives to promote renewables faces an uphill battle. Despite the fact that the cost of wind and solar has fallen in recent years, “there is little enthusiasm for alternative-energy subsidies in Washington,” an article on the front-page of The New York Times’s Business section reported Friday.

Obama’s GOP rivals criticized his decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, but since then they’ve been more preoccupied with arguing among themselves about moon colonies than challenging the president’s energy proposals. But rest assured, there’s a lot more debate about the president’s energy policy proposals to come—and a lot more spin. National and local reporters did a fairly good job this week covering the play-by-play. Let’s hope that continues.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , , ,