News Analysis: As Political Climate Shifts, Obama Energy Policy Holds

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((Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)   At the almost-end of the 2008 presidential primary season -- May, 2008 -- gasoline prices went through the roof , up to $5 a gallon in some areas of the country.  The price hike prompted near-panic, along with car-pooling, more mass transit rides, more careful grocery lists (just one trip to the supermarket) -- and a very big policy debate.

As it happened,  Hillary Clinton, fighting the last days of the primary, got behind a gas tax cut.  Most economists dismissed the idea -- not only would the gas tax cut simply disappear in the rising price of gasoline, they argued, but it would also bankrupt the already broke highway trust fund.

Barack Obama did not get behind the gas tax cut, even though, as I trailed the two candidates through the rolling hills of Indiana, cutting the gas tax got some of the biggest whoops of any proposals during Hillary Clinton's speeches.  Obama called it a gimmick.

He still thinks so, today.

"We’ve been down this road before," he told an enthusiastic audience of Georgetown University students at a speech (video here) on energy security today. "Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. Working folks haven’t forgotten that. It hit a lot of people pretty hard. But it was also the height of political season, so you had a lot of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians waving three-point-plans for two-dollar gas – when none of it would really do anything to solve the problem. Imagine that in Washington.

"The truth is, of course, was that all these gimmicks didn’t make a bit of difference. When gas prices finally fell, it was mostly because the global recession led to less demand for oil. Now that the economy is recovering, demand is back up. Add the turmoil in the Middle East, and it’s not surprising oil prices are higher. And every time the price of a barrel of oil on the world market rises by $10, a gallon of gas goes up by about 25 cents."

Indeed, President Barack Obama has had a remarkably consistent position on energy through his campaign and his presidency, even as the political climate has dramatically shifted.

In September of 2008, I was watching Rudy Giuliani give his address to the Republican National Convention with Congressman Peter King.  "Drill, Baby Drill," Giuliani said, as King cringed "we're not supposed to use the 'D-word,' we're supposed to say 'explore.'"  Still - the genie was out of the bottle. The crowd roared when Giuliani said that, and when Sarah Palin picked up the refrain during her acceptance of the Vice Presidential nomination later during the Minneapolis convention.

But despite the popularity of that slogan, talking about developing solutions to climate change and oil dependency was, in those days, a much more bi-partisan issue than it has since become.   Just two years later, In the elections of 2010, several Republicans won by practically spitting when mentioning Democratic support for what they called "cap and trade" legislation.

But Barack Obama?  In 2008, he supported a combination of nuclear power, alternative energy, and mass transit use.  Today?  He supports a combination of nuclear power, alternative energy, domestic oil drilling (the "Drill,Baby, Drill) part of his policy, and mass transit use.

"Seventy percent of our petroleum use goes to transportation," he said today."Seventy percent."

His speech today (full text here) made a careful argument.  We must, he posited, reduce oil consumption by a third in a decade.  To get there, he proposed, first, the US must exploit its own supplies -- "as long as it's safe and responsible."

"When it comes to drilling onshore,"  he added, in a line of argument that might surprise some of his 2008 primary voters -- "my Administration approved more than two permits last year for every new well that the industry started to drill.  So any claim that my Administration is responsible for gas prices because we’ve “shut down” oil production might make for a useful political sound bite – but it doesn’t track with reality.

And, then, in an adroit Obama-esque intellectual maneuver, he added "But let’s be honest – it’s not the long-term solution to our energy challenge.  America holds only about two percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.  And even if we drilled every drop of oil out of every one of those reserves, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet our long-term needs."


And then, natural gas drilling.  The practice was promoted with great gusto by the Bush- Cheney administration, which pushed through legislation specifically removing regulators' power to require gas drilling companies to disclose the contents of their chemical solution to extract natural gas from beneath deep stone.  But in an increasing number of states, hydrofracking, as it's known, has been linked to drinking water contamination.  Do it anyway, Obama said, but again "we have to make sure we’re doing it safely, without polluting our water supply."

Okay, now he's tipped his hat to the extraction people, it's on to biofuels.  "Consider Brazil, he said, "half -- half -- of Brazil's vehicles can run on biofuels."  So can, apparently, the Air Force's F-22 Raptor.   And if a jet plane ran go faster than the speed of sound on biofuels, so can "your old beater," the President said to the mostly college-age crowd.

Then, another zag.

"Now, in light of ongoing events in Japan, I want to say another word about nuclear power.  America gets one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy.   It has important potential for increasing our electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  But I’m determined to ensure that it’s safe."  But it won't, as he said, be "taken off the table."

Making it easier for him to say next, essentially: conserve! (Which is exactly the opposite of what 'Drill, baby, drill,' is meant to convey.)

"As we replace oil with fuels like natural gas and biofuels, we can also reduce our dependence by making cars and trucks that use less oil in the first place.  After all, 70 percent of our petroleum consumption goes to transportation.  And so does the second biggest chunk of most families’ budgets.  That’s why one of the best ways to make our economy less dependent on oil and save folks more money is simply to make our transportation more efficient."

The federal fleet, he said, one of the largest in the country (so large it can shift automobile sales data) should "lead by example"  As of 2015, he said, all federal agencies would purchase only alternative fuel, hybrid, or electric vehicles.

Most of the president's discussion of reducing oil consumption focused on personal or commercial vehicles, and the need for them to be more efficient.  But he did bring up mass transit.

"We’ve also made historic investments in high-speed rail and mass transit, because part of making our transportation sector cleaner and more efficient involves offering Americans – urban, suburban, and rural – the choice to be mobile without having to get in a car and pay for gas."

Note the tip of the hat to transit use by rural residents as well as urbanites. (His budget requests $22.4 billion for transit, an increase of more than $10 billion from 2010. And the Administration's spending on high speed rail ($11 billion so far and $53 billion in proposed spending) is an increase of $64 billion, more or less,  over what it was before.)

Oh yes, the President did mention climate change. Going off-text, he addressed the students of Georgetown.  "I know how much your generation cares about climate change," he said to the audience of mostly young people, after noting "imported oil will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time."

It's is an issue that's important to young people -- the very audiences that packed the school gyms and auditoriums during primary season, and who came out to vote in historic numbers in 2008, helping to guarantee Obama's landslide election.